Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA) was officially appointed chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, filling the vacancy left by former chairman Tom Lantos who passed away in February. In a press release from the committee, Berman says his highest priority will be to reassert the role of Congress, and specifically the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in developing a foreign policy that reflects U.S. national interests and is true to its values. He explains:
I believe it is extremely important for the Foreign Affairs Committee to increase its legislative activity. I intend, in the next Congress, to work with the Senate to resume the practice of passing foreign aid and State Department authorizations bills, both of which are essential for strengthening the tools of effective diplomacy. I also expect to begin laying the groundwork for a major overhaul of U.S. assistance to other countries. I want to explore how we can make foreign aid more effective, ensure that our money isn't wasted or diverted, and make sure we get the best bang for our buck.
For those needing a quick refresher, congressional authorizers (i.e. the House Foreign Affairs Committee) are traditionally meant to set policy while appropriators (i.e. the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs) are meant to allocate dollars. However, the U.S. has not passed a comprehensive foreign assistance authorization bill since 1985. In the absence of an authorization bill, the foreign operations appropriations bill has been the primary tool for congressional oversight and involvement in U.S. foreign affairs. A Congressional Research Service report explains the result:
Foreign operations spending measures developed by the appropriations committees increasingly have expanded their scope beyond spending issues and played a major role in shaping, authorizing, and guiding both executive and congressional foreign aid and broader foreign policy initiatives. It has been largely through foreign operations appropriations that the United States has modified aid policy and resource allocation priorities since the end of the Cold War.
The diminished role of congressional authorizers in U.S. foreign assistance policy has been cited in the numerous reports, including the recent HELP Commission report and in CGD's Modernizing U.S. Foreign Assistance initiative. Berman's commitment to address these issues and reassert the House Foreign Affairs Committee's role in authorizing U.S. foreign assistance policy is welcome news to many of those tracking efforts to make U.S. foreign assistance policy smarter and stronger.