August 23, 2016
Corker Faces a Hard Slog in Foreign Aid Overhaul
By Rachel Oswald, CQ Roll Call
For a quarter-century, lawmakers routinely cobbled together and cleared a comprehensive policy bill for U.S. foreign aid that provided guidance on everything from military financing for allies to programs that promote democracy. But in the past 30 years, Congress hasn’t signed off on even one such measure.
The inability of the House and Senate foreign affairs committees to pass such legislation has contributed to a disjointed U.S. assistance effort abroad in which various government agencies have appeared to work at cross purposes, experts say. It also has allowed other congressional panels - such as appropriations and armed services - to elbow in on the foreign aid policy game, even though many experts say those committees lack expertise in the delicate world of foreign assistance.
Foreign policy and aid professionals also worry that some assistance programs have become wasteful, inefficient and even counterproductive because there has been no routine review of their effectiveness. As a result, some aid efforts whose shelf life expired years ago continue to exist, they say.
“Can we really say that we are achieving concrete results?” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said at a July committee hearing on economic aid to developing nations. “Various commissions over the past decades have affirmed an unfortunate reality - our foreign assistance programs largely lack strategic focus and are not accomplishing their intended objectives as well as they could.”
Since taking over as chairman in 2015, Corker has set the committee a goal of getting back to carrying out its routine oversight functions of U.S. foreign policy. As part of that effort, the panel has advanced fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017 State Department authorization bills. Neither has become law.
The Tennessee Republican also wants to see the panel produce a foreign assistance authorization measure, though his office is noncommittal on the timeline. One Corker aide said the chairman views recent bipartisan efforts such as a 2016 law that seeks to reduce food aid inefficiencies (PL 114-195) as a first step in building momentum toward a more comprehensive approach to foreign aid reauthorization.
Corker’s efforts have not gone unnoticed in the aid community.
Nancy Lindborg, former assistant administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development, applauds Corker and Ranking Member Benjamin L. Cardin for their attempts to get the committee back to producing a foreign assistance authorization bill. She stressed that taking up such a measure would provide an opportunity to weed out a host of items that weigh down aid efforts.
“There absolutely needs to be a cleansing of the earmarks or a re-evaluation of the earmarks and how the accounts are organized,” said Lindborg, now the president of the congressionally chartered United States Institute of Peace.
In the absence of aid authorization measures, lawmakers have turned to the annual foreign assistance spending bill to push their policy agendas. That legislation is produced by the Senate and House State-Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittees and is typically full of policy riders and requirements for how money can be spent across a range of areas.
This year’s House bill (HR 5912) includes a provision to block funding for U.N. family planning programs and would place a ceiling on the amount of available funds for domestic refugee resettlement. The Senate version (S 3117) includes an extra $300 million in unrequested aid for Israel.
“Literally, the authorities become so disparate, so multiple that there is no coherence,” said George Ingram, a former USAID deputy administrator now with the Brookings Institution. “There is no focus, there is no strategy. In that type of situation, what you have is the budget driving strategy and issues rather than a thoughtful policy process.”
Cardin, speaking at last month’s hearing, criticized the habit of relying on the spending bill to legislate foreign policy concerns.
“We’ve used the appropriation process to put conditions on aid. That hasn’t worked,” the Maryland Democrat said. “It could be helpful if we could get into a regular practice of State Department authorization. . . . We could then take up some of these issues and we could look at what tools work. So I know we’re working on that. And the chairman has made that one of his top priorities, and I strongly support that.”
The most recent effort to produce a foreign assistance overhaul measure, under former House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard L. Berman in 2010, illustrates the challenges Corker and Cardin will likely
“It’s an enormous task that is fraught with potential problems because you have to get the buy-in from many different people,” said Berman, now with the law firm Covington & Burling.
Berman’s staff spent three years drafting a comprehensive foreign assistance policy bill, working to get many stakeholders on board. But by the time the California Democrat’s legislation was ready for committee consideration, the 112th Congress was almost over and Republicans had seized back control of the House. Berman introduced the measure anyway with Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va. The bill would have consolidated a number of objectives of U.S. foreign assistance and restored some USAID policy and budget functions.
“We just introduced the legislation knowing that it couldn’t be acted upon,” Berman said. His successor on the Foreign Affairs panel, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., “just wasn’t interested in this and had no intention of moving forward with it,” Berman said.
Ingram, the former USAID deputy administrator, says Corker and Cardin will be better served if they offer a more modest measure that tackles issues that are ripe for change, rather than offering a comprehensive reauthorization measure.
“There are many, many interest groups both in the executive branch and in the civil society,” said Ingram, who co-chairs the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network. “It is a lengthy process in checking with all of the civil society holders in drafting something that you can get a consensus around.”
Lester Munson, former Senate Foreign Relations staff director under Corker, predicts his onetime boss will likely try to tackle foreign aid authorization the same way he has the State Department policy bills the past two years: start small and try to build toward bigger things.
“They are going to try to do the thing that is doable,” said Munson, now with the lobbying firm BGR Government Affairs. “The more you do that, the more you build up to doing bigger and bigger pieces of legislation.”
The last time Congress cleared a State Department policy bill was 2002. The last time it cleared an omnibus foreign aid authorization was 1985.
What to Include?
In addition to removing many political directives of questionable efficacy, Lindborg says any assistance bill should give USAID a longer authorization window for some projects, compared to the one-year timeframe it currently has to spend money provided in annual appropriations bills.
“We need the ability for funding to sustain action over time,” she said. “We are looking often at generational problems for which we have one-year tools.”
Hari Sastry, director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources at the State Department, said he would like to see Congress give Foggy Bottom and USAID more spending flexibility. He pointed to the recent spate of global emergencies, including the Ebola and Zika viruses and the Middle East refugee crisis, as evidence of the unforeseen types of events the United States increasingly is relied upon to respond to.
“Emerging issues . . . come up through the year that we haven’t really had a chance to plan for ahead of time because, as you know, the budget process starts two-and-a-half years before we actually get the money,” Sastry said.
He noted approvingly that this year’s Senate foreign aid spending bill increases from 5 percent to 10 percent the threshold that triggers a congressional reprogramming request.
“In the [fiscal] ‘15 bill, there was more direction than there had been in the past,” Sastry said. “In the Senate bill, we’ve seen them hopefully step back from that a little bit.”
However, Munson, the former aide, said he thought it was a “little opportunistic” for the administration to point to foreign crises to argue it should be given more spending flexibility from Congress.
“The administration always complains about not having enough flexibility,” he said. “There is probably more flexibility in foreign operations accounts than any other account in government. There are other agencies where every single dollar is dictated by the Hill.”
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