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The legislative branch plays a critical role in US foreign assistance, possessing the power both to authorize policy and appropriate funds. Any efforts to modernize US foreign assistance will require congressional champions and support from both Democrats and Republicans, working with a committed administration. However, congressional control over US foreign assistance is influenced by a range of often competing interests, spread over multiple committees in both houses, with separate but frequently overlapping jurisdictions.

Three critical issues affect congressional control over US foreign assistance:

1. Authorizers versus Appropriators 
Congress divides its legislative, fiscal, oversight, and administrative responsibilities among roughly 200 committees and subcommittees. In theory, congressional authorizers determine policy, while appropriators allocate dollars. For example, the House Foreign Relations Committee should define the language and purpose for a development program and authorize federal money to be spent on it, while the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations should decide how much money that program will receive and from which account. However, these lines have been blurred in past years and appropriators are now often in the position of setting policy as well as allocating funds.

2. Multiple committees of jurisdiction
Authority over US foreign assistance is spread over multiple congressional committees, with separate but often overlapping jurisdictions. In the Senate, the Foreign Relations Committee controls a great deal of US foreign assistance. However, the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senate Armed Services Committee, Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, to name only a few, also have jurisdiction over related foreign assistance issues. More than one dozen Senate authorizing committees (standing and select) participate in crafting US foreign assistance. Each full committee includes multiple subcommittees that may also exercise control over specific foreign assistance issues or programs. The same is true on the House side.

In 2008, twenty US government agencies disbursed funds for or administered foreign assistance activities. Each agency falls under the jurisdiction of multiple congressional committees. For example, the Department of Defense (DOD) provides foreign assistance through security, humanitarian and economic assistance accounts. The House and Senate Committees on Armed Services, Select Committees on Intelligence, the House Committee on Financial Services, and the Senate Committee on Banking have authorizing jurisdiction over the DOD and its foreign assistance programs.

3. Influence over US foreign assistance priorities 
Members of Congress are influenced primarily by their constituents. Although the direct beneficiaries of US foreign assistance programs reside outside the United States, there has often been a belief that there isn’t a constituency for development in the US This is changing. As the grassroots advocacy campaigns of ONE, Bread for the World, and the US Global Leadership Coalition, among others, demonstrate, there is growing recognition that investing in global development is an investment in America’s future—strengthening our security, its economic opportunities, and its moral value. To summarize, global development has become part of the US national interest, and constituents are talking about it with their members of Congress. Some of the groups with the largest influence with Congress, however, are those with the largest self-interest. They work to ensure that funds are directed to countries, programs and contracts that most directly benefit their own interests. The resulting earmarks (e.g., a certain percentage directed to microfinance programs) and directives (e.g., “tied aid” where foreign assistance programs must purchase American goods), serve an American constituency, but run counter to beneficiary country needs and limits the amount of assistance that gets to the people it was intended to serve.

Modernizing US foreign assistance will require a bolder, harder look at managing these three tensions. Learn more about CGD’s work On the Hill.

CGD's Work on Congress and Modernizing US Foreign Assistance