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This is a joint post with Will McKitterick.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) introduced a 923-page rewrite of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act last week. He first vowed to rewrite the bill in 2008 when he was chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Unfortunately, Berman has only days left in Congress and the bill won’t go anywhere before he leaves. Still, the draft captures years of thinking about the United States’ legislative approach to foreign assistance and offers a possible blueprint for co-sponsor Gerry Connolly (D-VA) or others to carry forward.

Here are a few of the things we (and others) like about the Global Partnership Act of 2012:

  • It exists! The United States’ core foreign assistance policy was written during the Kennedy administration and hasn't been reauthorized since 1985. It’s outdated and unwieldy and written for a different era. Berman and his staff have made a huge contribution by putting pen to paper on a new act that could pave the way for congressional authorizers to reassert their leadership on US foreign assistance.
  • Individual sections stand alone. While a complete overhaul of the Foreign Assistance Act is preferable, it will take a huge political lift to pass an entire rewrite. But there are sections of Berman’s bill that members of Congress could lift and potentially pass in the 113th Congress. These include sections codifying a White House Global Development Council and data transparency initiatives--efforts already endorsed by the Obama administration. And Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and others have already been working on a transparency bill that reflects elements in Berman’s draft.
  • Cleaner, smarter. It clarifies the goals and purposes of US assistance, puts a premium on measuring impact, establishes a division of labor among agencies and reduces burdensome reporting requirements in exchange for more transparency on where and how aid is invested.

The bill is the result of five years’ work and captures input from Democrats and Republicans on the Hill, executive branch policymakers and NGOs. It is very likely the most pragmatic approach that balances a huge range of interests and would be better than the status quo. The development dreamer in us, though, wishes a new US foreign aid bill could be closer to the UK Department of International Development’s 15-page authorizing legislation and have less of the familiar menu of aid options (health, education, food security, child survival and health, microfinance, water, gender, democracy, governance, peace, environment, etc.). The bill’s authors tried hard to get away from earmarks. The long list of goals and objectives reassures important development constituents “their issues” are still there. But it seems it wouldn’t take much to get right back to the sector earmarking and directives that plague the current system. And the bill stops short of major structural changes (e.g.,  a cabinet-level agency for development or adjustments to the multiple congressional committees that have jurisdiction over foreign assistance).

The history of attempted foreign aid rewrites is long and the ending is yet-to-be-written. Here’s hoping the latest detailed chapter from Howard Berman can help move the United States one step closer to a foreign assistance act for this century.