What to watch for in Gayle Smith's confirmation hearing

Gayle Smith was nominated to replace Rajiv Shah as the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Photo by: ENOUGH Project / CC BY-NC-ND

Gayle Smith, U.S. President Barack Obama’s nominee for administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, will appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today in the beginning of what some worry will be a drawn out and combative Congressional confirmation process.

Potential partisan wrangling over Smith’s foreign policy record — or Congress’ sometimes sluggish pace when confirming nominees — could slow things down. Partisanship and bureaucracy notwithstanding, with only a week and a half remaining in the current Congressional session and only 15 months left under the current administration, many in the development community worry that time may not be on Smith’s side.

“The confirmation process has been slow and sticky but now it’s really tick tock,” Nancy Lindborg, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, told Devex.

“We can’t afford to have [USAID] without leadership given the number of crises around the world, as well as the key opportunities to move forward with some really high-impact initiatives,” she said.

Still, despite the slow pace of past confirmations, it appears Congress’ efforts to fill the role of USAID administrator, left vacant by Rajiv Shah in February, are moving relatively fast.

“Hats off to [Sen. Bob] Corker, I’m encouraged that he scheduled this hearing so quickly,” George Ingram, senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution and former senior staff with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told Devex.

Ingram explained that the early attention to Smith’s confirmation “sets the tone” for the rest of the confirmation process.

Still, the outcome of the hearing today will depend “a lot on who shows up,” he added.

“If [Republican presidential candidate and senator from Kentucky] Rand Paul is there, we’ll probably see some aid bashing,” he said.

If Smith faces stiff congressional opposition it will likely come from lawmakers who generally oppose the Obama administration, and who see the USAID nominee as another “Obama insider.”

Beyond Capitol Hill, some critics have accused Smith of establishing close relationships with oppressive African regimes during her tenure as senior director for Africa affairs on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, as well as in her current role as special assistant to the president and director of the NSC. But these charges “aren’t necessarily relevant” to the administrator role at USAID, Ingram said, and if they do come up in the hearing, it will be “because somebody is deciding to use Gayle as an excuse to attack the Obama administration.”

“Working on the White House side of things, as opposed to having a little more distance, may not help her a lot,” said David Weiss, president and CEO of Global Communities.

But in her most recent roles, Weiss said, namely on the NSC and in recent crises, “she hasn’t really been seen as partisan in her decision-making,” he said.

In fact, added Weiss, who led Global Communities under Smith’s coordination of the U.S. response to both the Ebola outbreak last year and the Nepal earthquakes last month, Smith has a knack for facilitating collaboration in a crisis, and will easily follow Shah’s footsteps in crossing the aisle.

“For the Ebola crisis there were a lot of moving parts — the Ebola czar, Raj Shah and all the big players — but Gayle as head of the NSC was the glue that pulled everybody together effectively,” Weiss told Devex.

With many Shah-era initiatives — like Power Africa and Feed the Future — still caught in congressional limbo, a swift and smooth confirmation process for Smith could be a large factor in cementing the size and impact of the Obama administration’s development legacy.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.