September 21, 2017

Congress Puts its Foot Down: International Affairs Budget Update

By Megan Rabbitt

You would be hard pressed to find a time when the stakes have been higher for the International Affairs Budget then they are right now.

Back in February – in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War and escalating security threats in every corner of the globe – the Administration released a budget proposal calling for a deep and disproportionate 32 percent cut to the International Affairs Budget.

But in the months that have followed, a chorus of voices – from top military leaders, to retired generals and admirals, to business owners, and the faith community – have spoken out in support of America’s diplomatic and development programs. On Capitol Hill – where funding levels will ultimately be determined – lawmakers on both sides of the aisle made clear early on that the Administration’s budget was “dead on arrival.” And they didn’t stop there. In recent weeks, both the House and Senate have taken decisive actions to protect and defend the International Affairs Budget – sending a clear signal that America’s role in the world isn’t up for debate.

Here’s a closer look at the recent flurry of activity on the International Affairs Budget:

Three Birds, One Bill

Returning to Capitol Hill after the August recess, lawmakers had just weeks to spare before government funding was set to run out and the Treasury was expected to reach its borrowing limit. Victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were looking to Congress to provide badly-needed aid — and quickly. With the clock ticking, the President and Congressional leaders agreed to bundle all three priorities into one legislative package – releasing aid for Hurricane victims, raising the debt ceiling, and funding the government through December 8th.

But as the Senate rushed to pass the bill, there were a few heart-stopping moments when it looked like the future of U.S. foreign assistance was on the line. An amendment offered by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) would have offset the hurricane relief by slashing funding for USAID by more than $15 billion. Thankfully, the amendment was defeated by a decisive, bipartisan vote of 87-10 and the President signed the bill into law with USAID’s budget intact.

Finally, Some Floor Action

In addition to passing the hurricane relief package, the House also took up an omnibus spending bill that combined eight FY18 appropriations bills – including the State-Foreign Operations (SFOPS) bill that sets funding levels for the State Department and USAID.

This was notable for a number of reasons, chief among them – it was the first time in seven years that the SFOPS bill has been debated on the House floor. What’s more, every amendment that would have cut the topline funding level – including one that would have defunded the U.S. Institute of Peace – was soundly defeated with bipartisan opposition.

SFOPS Bill Flies Through Committee

The FY18 SFOPS spending bill flew through the Senate Appropriations Committee – with both the SFOPs subcommittee and the full committee voting to advance the bill in just two days.

Not only did the Committee approve funding levels that are far higher than the Administration’s request, but the bill’s accompanying report makes it abundantly clear that Congress will not entertain proposals to scale back U.S. global leadership. Calling the Administration’s foreign policy an “apparent doctrine of retreat…[that] serves only to weaken America’s standing in the world,” Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) flatly rejected the Administration’s proposed cuts to the State Department and USAID.

While the chances of the SFOPS bill making it to the Senate floor are slim, the Committee’s unequivocal support of America’s diplomatic and development programs bodes well for what’s to come.

What’s Next?

With the government funded through December 8th, Congress has more time to hammer out final FY18 spending bills. But Members on both sides of the aisle know that Congress must reach a budget deal in order to fully fund the government in FY18. A bipartisan budget deal would be welcome news for diplomatic and development programs hindered by caps on non-defense discretionary spending. Despite these hurdles and thanks to the impressive show of bipartisan support for U.S. global leadership on Capitol Hill, the balance has tipped decidedly in favor of a strong International Affairs Budget for FY18.

For a more detailed look at what has been going on with the International Affairs Budget in Congress, be sure to check out our latest budget update here. And to learn more about how the House and Senate spending bills differ, you can read the USGLC’s full analysis here.