While we don’t often blog congressional hearings, yesterday’s discussion of “The Budget, Diplomacy, and Development” in the House Foreign Affairs Committee struck us as especially important given the uncertainty facing the foreign assistance budget. Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) opened the proceedings by noting that the Trump administration’s proposed FY2018 “skinny” budget offered more questions than answers. But it was the level of consensus in acknowledging that deep cuts to the international affairs budget would be unwise and undermine US interests, which felt remarkable.
All three witnesses—the Hoover Institute’s Stephen D. Krasner, AEI’s Danielle Pletka, and Former Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns—aligned themselves in clear opposition to cutting the 150 account by 30 percent. More surprising still, participating committee members from both sides of the aisle—with one notable exception—expressed disappointment, if not dismay, regarding the White House’s treatment of US foreign assistance and diplomacy in its FY2018 budget blueprint.
Committee members and testifying witnesses emphasized the need for US foreign policy to employ all “three Ds”: defense, diplomacy, and development. Variations of Defense Secretary Mattis’ statement, “If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition,” were quoted several times. And while witnesses and representatives readily acknowledged that US foreign assistance and the State Department would benefit from reform, there was a commonly held sentiment that the proposed budget reductions lacked strategy. Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA) noted, for example, that the budget sought to eliminate OPIC even though the agency returns money to the Treasury every year.
Rather than improving the effectiveness and efficiency of US foreign assistance and diplomacy, representatives and witnesses concluded the cuts would undermine US security and influence. With such drastic funding reductions, committee members worried about the United States’ ability to counter threats to global health and guard against failed and ungoverned states—and the violent extremism and displacement such spaces can cultivate. Representative Mike McCaul (R-TX) expressed concern the cuts would diminish our ability to defeat ISIS. Others were anxious about how the Trump budget would reduce the United States’ global standing and ultimately enhance the influence of China and Russia.
The witnesses before the committee were hard-pressed for solutions. Danielle Pletka argued Congress should look for cuts among programs and policies that have proven ineffective and wasteful. She also suggested the committee examine politically motivated foreign assistance to nations such as Pakistan and Egypt as it tries to reduce spending. Nicholas Burns proposed decreasing the number of Under Secretaries, special envoy offices, and political appointees at the State Department. Stephen Krasner broadly advised the United States maintain its commitment to programs that enhance global security, health, and economic growth.
In the end, no one on either side of the dais advanced recommendations that would amount to a nearly one third reduction in the 150 account. While it’s comforting to hear effective US foreign assistance championed on Capitol Hill, it’s not yet clear how the chamber will navigate the difficult budget decisions on the horizon. In the face of so many questions, let’s hope policymakers continue to look to the evidence (and maybe even a few CGD reports) to inform their decision-making.