Reports that national security spending, including foreign affairs, will be exempt from the federal spending freeze President Obama is expected to discuss in the State of the Union address tonight is good and bad news.
The good: Exempting national security spending, including the foreign affairs budget request--the 150 account--from the freeze signals strong support from the administration for the critical importance of our diplomatic and development efforts for security and prosperity at home and abroad.
The outpouring of support in response to the Haiti earthquake shows yet again the empathy and compassion of Americans for their fellow man, whether or not they live within our borders. This kind of surge in support for an emergency response is often hard to sustain and takes leadership from the White House and beyond. So it is great to see that the Obama administration is taking clear steps in the budget and in policy reviews to maintain and strengthen long-term development programs in its own best interests.
The bad: Exempting these accounts from the rest of the freeze means they remain a pot of discretionary spending that can be redirected as Congress struggles to fund a variety of other priorities. In many ways the exemption--while still causing sighs of relief right now in the development community--puts a big bull’s eye on this particular pot as ripe for pilfering.
Avoiding the ugly: The unenviable task ahead for Congress to make ends meet with a heavily constrained budget means the domestic politics around the international affairs budget could be hell. For several years we’ve seen growing bipartisan support for U.S. international affairs programs as increasingly vital to U.S. national security and American well-being, as well as reflecting American generosity and a belief in opportunity. The fear is that the current political climate, an election year, and a really tight budget could see a return of ugly partisan politics over these issues.
Either way, there is a real risk that the good intentions of protecting the international affairs account could backfire. It’s worth remembering—as budget guru Larry Nowels pointed out to me—that the last time the U.S. took a meat-ax to the 150 budget in the 1990s, it fell 25 percent in real terms over five years and it took a decade and 9/11 to recover.
The trick is going to be navigating the political waters carefully and with continued leadership on the development issues. I hope tonight we’ll hear more than talk of what’s in and out of the spending freeze and that President Obama will make the case (as Secretary Clinton did in her CGD speech earlier this month) that engagement with the rest of the world matters for Americans, even in these difficult times. And that the relatively small 150 account, compared to the rest of the U.S. national security budget, is one of the more cost-effective national security tools in our arsenal.
President Obama and his team will need to keep singing this tune in the coming months, and be backed up by a congressional chorus with leaders from both sides of the political aisle to help avoid the ugly, so our policies—and purse—reflect American smart power in an increasingly interconnected world.