What to watch in US Congress in 2019

A view of the United States Capitol. Photo by: Jomar on Unsplash

WASHINGTON — On Capitol Hill, the new year brings with it new leadership of key committees, a divided Congress, a few development-related bills likely to be considered, and a fair amount of uncertainty about what’s in store after a period of bipartisan cooperation on development issues.

While bipartisanship is likely to continue on some issues, the political environment will change as Democrats take control of the House of Representatives. More oversight and investigation of the Trump administration in the House will potentially lead to a more contentious environment, where it will be harder to carve out space for issues where there is agreement, several development advocates told Devex.

“I think there is an assumption that Democrats are ‘good’ on development and Republicans are ‘less good,’ less natural allies and ... we fall back on that on our own peril.”

— Ben Weingrod, deputy director of government relations, CARE USA

There are a number of outstanding questions, including what the new leadership — Senator James Risch, a Republican from Idaho, and Representative Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York — will prioritize on the committees charged with development issues and how they will work both with their committees and with one another.

In conversations with development experts who work with Congress, several themes emerged about what to watch in the year ahead in Congress: new leadership, increased oversight, a number of legislative priorities, and the budget fight.

New leadership

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This year begins with new leadership on both the House and Senate foreign affairs committees, as well as a large group of new legislators who may be new to global development issues. The committees have historically worked well together, putting partisanship aside when possible, several of the experts said.

“It’ll be really interesting to see if both committees continue to really put partisanship aside or at least to minimize it,” said Ben Weingrod, CARE USA’s deputy director of government relations, adding that the committees have historically been good at doing so.

Key to this will be how the committees, especially the House foreign affairs one, balances oversight and legislation, he said.

Engel, who was the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will take the helm and Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas will be the committee’s ranking Republican. The two have worked together in the past, including co-sponsoring a bill in 2018.

“[There was] a commitment on both sides to more of a regular order, build back committees capacity, try to pass authorizing legislation more regularly through a normal process,” said Stephanie Cappa, the deputy director and senior policy adviser of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. She added that she would expect Engel and McCaul would remain committed to that.

The biggest unknown is Sen. James Risch, a Republican from Idaho who will lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Risch doesn’t have much of a track record on bills related to foreign aid, or other business of the committee.

Quite a few of the development experts said that little is known about Risch, one called him a bit of a “wild card,” but most hope that he will learn about development issues and perhaps turn to others on the committee who have a track record of leadership on the subject.

Having incoming chairs with little knowledge of development issues isn’t new, said Tom Hart, ONE Campaign’s North America executive director. He noted that the retiring chair, Sen. Bob Corker, was once an aid skeptic but dove into the job, traveling, consulting with experts, learning the issues and eventually advocating for several key pieces of development legislation.

ONE has had productive and warm conversations with Risch, particularly with constituents who are ONE members. They have discussed issues of international engagement broadly and also specifically addressed fragile states, Hart said.

There are also likely to be a number of senators — both Republicans and Democrats — who are champions for development issues that will return to the committee. With the midterm electoral gains in the Senate, Republicans will have an additional seat on the foreign relations committee, which along with two retirements, leaves three open posts. Incoming Utah Sen. Mitt Romney will join the committee along with South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Texas’ Ted Cruz.

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In addition to new faces in leadership positions, there is also a large and diverse group of new legislators, many of whom focused on domestic issues in their campaigns and have little familiarity with development issues.

Advocates will also be focusing on these new congressmen and women and working to educate them, potentially take them on trips to see U.S. aid in action and try to get them on board with some of the key development priorities. While many of the incoming representatives are Democrats, following significant gains in the election, advocates will be looking at all newcomers, CARE’s Weingrod added.  

“I think there is an assumption that Democrats are ‘good’ on development and Republicans are ‘less good,’ less natural allies and ... we fall back on that on our own peril,” he said

Oversight

All signs indicate that a Democrat-controlled House will place a greater focus on oversight, with news in December indicating that a reshuffling of House Foreign Affairs Committee subcommittees will create a new investigations subcommittee.

While much of the investigations may be focused on broader foreign policy issues, it also seems likely that there will be hearings about the Mexico City policy, otherwise known as the “global gag rule,” the administration’s use of the Kemp Kasten amendment to defund the U.N. Population Fund, and about women’s reproductive health more broadly, several of the experts said.

The committee will likely also look at Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s role in the war and the administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

As the administration prepares to unveil its foreign assistance review, it is likely that the House Foreign Affairs Committee will take a look at the administration’s proposals, as well as perhaps increasing oversight into the U.S. Agency for International Development transformation process.

The administration has also signaled that it may restrict aid to countries that vote with the U.S. at the United Nations or provide aid to “friends,” as well as pull away from multilateral institutions, which the committee may consider.

The House may also consider hearings about climate change and its impact, and CARE would like to see a discussion of its impacts on the world’s most vulnerable people, particularly farmers, Weingrod said.

Legislation

While there may be fewer marquee pieces of legislation in the year ahead, some bills are likely to be introduced, and a number of issues that advocates would like Congress to take up.

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Last year, the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act passed the House but didn’t make it to a vote in the Senate. With its House co-sponsors Engel and McCaul leading the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that bill, aimed at improving U.S. capacity to address the root causes of violence, conflict, and fragility, will likely be reintroduced, Hart said. In addition to the House committee leaders sponsoring the previous version of the bill, Risch seems interested in fragility issues as well, and new studies are expected on the subject in the year ahead, he said.

Another issue likely to see some discussion and potential legislation is global health security. A Global Health Security Act was introduced last year by Rep. Gerald Connolly, and it is expected to be reintroduced in 2019, said Loyce Pace, the president and executive director of the Global Health Council. Another global health issue Pace would like to see some legislation around is health-systems strengthening. There has been some work on a bill, but it has been hard to build a constituency around such an abstract idea, she said.

In 2018, the Senate approved a joint resolution cutting off military aid and rebuking Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen. The House did not vote on the resolution, but the Senate sponsor Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, said that congressional effort is not over. With Democrats in control of the House, it is likely that pushback against the Saudi role in the what many consider the world’s worst humanitarian disaster will be back on the docket.

Two other previous bills — the Multilateral Aid Review Act and the Global Development Lab Act — should be reintroduced this year. There may also be an appetite for more legislation on women’s empowerment. While the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act made it through under the wire last year, the issue seems to have a lot of attention so there may be space for additional legislation, perhaps on women’s health or women and girls in emergencies, Weingrod said.

Catholic Relief Services will be pushing legislative action around early childhood development and bridging the gap between the first 1,000 days and basic education. It will also look to work with Congress to continue progress on food security issues, said Bill O’Keefe, Catholic Relief Services’ vice president for government relations and advocacy.

And the ONE Campaign will be focused on the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria replenishment, and what signals the administration and Congress send through the appropriations process. The U.S. has historically been the largest single donor to the Global Fund and its contribution often sets the standard for other countries.

Another key issue for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be confirming nominees in key aid positions. To date, USAID only has two of its 11 Senate-confirmed positions filled. Four nominees made it out of committee in 2018 but failed to get a floor vote so would need to be reintroduced. Another key post that will need to be renominated is the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s top post, which has been in limbo as Sean Cairncross’ nomination languished and never got a Senate vote.

Budget

All indications are that President Donald Trump’s budget will once again include steep cuts to the foreign aid budgets, with several people with knowledge of the budget requests saying that the administration asked agencies to submit budgets with spending levels five percent less than fiscal year 2019. The result will be that, once again, Congress will have to decide if it wants to cut the budget, keep spending levels flat as it has the past few years, or boost funds.

“We have been lucky that our … very small piece of the budget pie [has been] been insulated from a lot of the partisan rancor in Congress — it’s just a question of how much these champions can continue to do that,” Weingrod said.

It is important that the development community not take for granted that Congress has successfully pushed back against the president’s budget, several of the experts said.

Many of the leaders remain in place on the budget committees, but there is a lot of uncertainty about how and if Congress will handle the budget. The latest government shutdown casts a shadow over the process, as Congress has failed consistently to pass budget bills and the two-year budget deal has ended.

The process this year will likely include debates around a growing federal deficit and its impact on discretionary spending, which could impact the foreign aid budget.

Having an orderly budget process is critically important, O’Keefe said, as USAID and implementers are “not able to make the kinds of commitments well-designed, well-implemented development projects require.”

The administration is likely to look to see if there are unspent funds, and accounts that haven’t spent their full previous allocations are likely to get less funding.

“While we think the president’s [upcoming budget] proposal is DOA [dead on arrival], I think it will be a very fluid, tricky budget negotiation,” Hart said, adding that he doesn’t sense a desire by members of Congress to ratchet back aid spending — but there may be shifting priorities.

About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.