Ideas to Action:

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Views from the Center


The big news out of the U.S. midterm elections is the Republican victory and control of the House of Representatives. Thirty nine of the sixty new House Republicans align themselves with the Tea Party. One of the few things the pundits agree on is that there is no clear Tea Party foreign policy agenda, much less a unified view about whether and how to engage developing countries. While both the elections and the Tea Party candidates focused on domestic issues—largely the slow economic recovery—the new makeup of Congress and how the legislative branch responds to those concerns could have big implications for U.S. global development policy.

Republican control of the House of Representative will require the White House to work and negotiate with Congress to move policy. I think we could see a lot of good coming out of closer administration-congressional relations especially on development issues. On the flip side, research by CGD’s Todd Moss and the World Bank’s Markus Goldstein suggests that foreign aid budget numbers are lower—in absolute flows and as a percent of total aid—when the Congress and White House are controlled by different parties. And given the general mandate of the 112th Congress to reign in government spending and deal with the growing deficit, the entire federal budget--foreign assistance and development certainly included--will be under enormous pressure and likely see cuts.

Of course, aid is about more than money; how rich countries design their aid programs is as important as how much they give. In this sense, the pressure on the budget could help drive aid reforms and force the administration and Congress to make tough choices about where and how we spend our aid dollars and push for stronger evidence on what works in development. The push to be more selective with our development assistance, focus on economic growth, and do a better job of measuring impact and results (and share it publicly) is already lined up in the presidential policy directive on U.S. global development policy and seems like a reform mantle that both parties could get behind.

As for the rest of the White House development agenda, I see flickers of hope on trade which has languished in the past two years. Likely leadership by Dave Camp (R-MI) of the House Ways and Means Committee and Kevin Brady (R-TX) of the trade subcommittee could help move forward free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama (that didn’t move forward under Democratic leadership). The new presidential policy directive on global development wisely says that development is about more than aid, and trade is a logical way to show that the United States is using its other policy tools for development. If I were in the White House, I’d be reaching out tomorrow to Camp, Brady and Senator-elect (and former U.S. Trade Representative) Rob Portman (R-OH) to come up with a joint trade policy agenda that benefits the United States and developing countries. (CGD president Nancy Birdsall and senior fellow Kim Elliott would urge them to push for duty-free, quota-free trade access for the least developed countries as a first step.)

It’s also worth watching how the three major presidential development initiatives—Feed the Future, the Global Health Initiative, and Global Climate Change Initiative—fare in the new Congress and in a tight budget environment. I wonder whether these initiatives with new structures and new budget lines will look like expanding government bureaucracy or duplication of efforts among U.S. development actors. Republican control of the House could also inject a new round of reproductive rights and abortion debates into global health conversations. With White House leadership, it’s not impossible that we could see some foreign aid reform legislation, but I’m less hopeful that we’ll see a new Foreign Assistance Act. (My colleagues Connie Veillette, Casey Dunning and I will continue tracking what the elections mean for U.S. foreign assistance reform on our Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance blog.)

Finally, the Obama administration has promised to leverage U.S. development investments through the multilateral development institutions, including through international financial institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and regional development banks. While the United States can leverage both money and influence this way, I expect we’ll nevertheless see some renewed skepticism of international institutions (starting with the United Nations) in the 112th Congress. The international financial institutions in particular, dramatically increased their lending in 2008-09 to help developing countries cope with the global financial crisis and support economic recovery (which was good for the United States too). Many of them will be seeking funding increases next year which will be an uphill battle on, well, the Hill. In general, I think we may see the administration change the tune (think more “burden-sharing” and less “global partnership”), but not the song on multilateral engagement.

What do you think the elections mean for U.S. development policy?


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.