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This is a joint post with Casey Dunning.

Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) Congressional budget alternative was launched last week to the dismay of the development community. The 99-page Path to Prosperity anticipates a very small role for development and diplomacy in America’s foreign policy. Both areas of the budget take heavy cuts – a near 10 percent reduction from fiscal year 2012.

The Ryan budget is already taking serious heat with its proposals to eliminate Feed the Future and merge USAID development assistance programs with the Millennium Challenge Corporation. But who didn’t see that level of contention coming? What’s really interesting is comparing the Ryan budget against Congressional reaction to recent USAID hearings with Administrator Raj Shah earlier in March. Congressmen on both sides of the aisle asked nuanced questions that demonstrated an understanding of the role of development as a part of robust U.S. foreign engagement. Moreover, Congressional leaders in both chambers were supportive of administrative efforts to reform and enhance our foreign assistance.

Here’s a taste of the issues Congress members rallied around during the hearings (which Administrator Raj Shah ably handled).

Maximizing Efficiencies: Congressional leaders scrutinized spending at every turn, forcing Shah to justify each dollar in the FY2013 request. But most members seemed more concerned with maximizing efficiencies than clambering for cuts. To this end, leaders were interested in and supportive of USAID Forward, the Agency’s initiative aimed at simplifying and streamlining policies and procedures to make foreign assistance more effective. Members repeatedly asked for specifics on efforts to collect and use more data to guide assistance, monitor and evaluate programs, and reform procurement practices. In particular, Representatives Poe (R-TX) and Berman (D-CA) advocated the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act, H.R. 3159, a hallmark of the administration’s PPD and QDDR reform recommendations. The consensus from Members seemed to be that the best way to reduce spending is not to slash programs, but to use data and careful analysis to determine what works and what doesn’t.

Supporting New Initiatives: Although there was talk of making our assistance more selective and focused (something we wholly endorse at CGD), Congressional leaders were supportive of the administration’s efforts to expand programming in a number of areas. Members were interested in learning about USAID’s new policy to integrate gender into all areas of development programming and were particularly keen to learn about the new metrics the Agency plans on using to guide programming and track implementation of the policy. Others wanted updates on USAID’s response to the humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa and expressed their willingness to provide additional aid to the region if necessary. As in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s hearings, leaders were curious, if not skeptical, of the new Middle East and North Africa Investment Fund (MENA), but were not necessarily opposed to efforts to engage the region through USAID. The administration will have a tough time convincing Congress to accept an expansion of programming in this tight budget, but USAID’s hearings suggest that members are not opposed to smart spending where it can make a difference.

Scrutinizing Cuts as Well as Spending: Interestingly, concerns over cutting spending emerged from both sides of the aisle. Given the impressive extent of growth and development in Latin America over the past decade, the administration is preparing to scale back foreign assistance to the region. But some members are concerned over cuts, arguing that the U.S. has a clear interest in maintaining current levels of aid. Global health was another area of concern. The FY2013 request reduces health spending by 3.8 percent in 2013, and representatives are concerned that reductions will affect popular programs like the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  While Congressional leaders pushed for more prioritization and focus, many members expressed concern about reductions in projects they deem important in a variety of areas of U.S. foreign assistance.

To be fair, Congressional leaders also offered a healthy dose of scrutiny for U.S. development efforts through USAID. That’s to be expected at any hearing on the budget. But the general mood at all four hearings was far less antagonistic toward the role of development in U.S. foreign engagement than is evident in the Ryan budget. We can all guess at the reasons behind this discrepancy in temperament, but there’s also an important takeaway:  Congress, at least amongst those committee members abreast of foreign assistance issues, is more receptive to U.S. development efforts than this antagonistic political climate would otherwise suggest. Nevertheless, outside the expertise of committee chambers, foreign assistance funding will undoubtedly face stiff resistance from a Congress full of Ryan supporters.