U.S. lawmakers quietly propose foreign aid cuts

Buried in the byzantine U.S. federal budgeting process, amid all the proposals, press releases, tables, bills and regulations, is an obscure but critical step that drives the budget debates for months but gets surprisingly little attention given its outsized influence. It is called the 302(b) allocation. 

Every year, the House and Senate are supposed to write budgets that set caps for all discretionary spending for the coming fiscal year. (Discretionary spending is the part of the federal budget that Congress controls through the appropriations process, as opposed to mandatory spending, like Social Security or Medicare.) While they don’t always succeed, for fiscal year (FY) 2014, they got it done. The House proposed a cap of $967 billion and the Senate, of $1.058 trillion. This $91 billion gap was already bound to create huge differences in proposed spending, from foreign aid to education, school lunches and even the Pentagon. 

However, the next step in the process, the one that gets so little attention, is the critical 302(b) allocation. This is when the House and Senate Appropriations committees divide those top-line numbers into individual allocations for the various spending bills. 

The Senate has yet to do so, but the House Appropriations Committee met on May 21 to determine those allocations. The numbers were surprisingly austere, even by today’s standards. For the State, Foreign Operations bill (SFOPs), which covers nearly all foreign aid spending (minus some food aid programs located in the Agriculture bill), they proposed a cap of $40.6 billion. This is lower than the current, post-sequestration spending level ($51.7 billion), under the president’s request ($51.8 billion) and even less than what the House itself proposed last year ($48.4 billion).

The proposed cut to SFOPs is also grossly disproportionate. Estimates vary, but it would be 15 to 20 percent less than current funding levels, while several departments would receive increases, including Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans and the legislative branch (i.e. Congress itself). The only bill to see a larger cut than SFOPs was the bill funding the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. 

We are not just talking about numbers on a piece of paper. The SFOPs bill funds programs from global health to food aid to peacekeeping forces. These cuts are being proposed when more people are displaced than at any other time in the past 15 years, and one in eight people — 870 million — are hungry. Through U.S. foreign assistance, Syrians are getting life-saving food, farmers in Africa and Asia are improving their yields and girls in the Middle East are staying in school. Fewer children are dying and HIV/AIDS is no longer a death sentence for many. Is this really the time to cut back on programs that amount to less than 1 percent of our federal budget? Sure, we must balance our books, but we can’t do it by cutting such a small, critical fraction of our budget. We have to go where the money is, and foreign aid isn’t it.

So, if we can’t balance the budget by cutting foreign aid, why propose such deep cuts to this account? House appropriators probably have no intention of actually bringing spending bills with such low allocations to the floor and, instead, will only bring a few spending bills (Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans) to a vote. The bills with the lower allocations would just be governed by another “idiotic” continuing resolution — to quote House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) — which maintains funding levels from previous years without much congressional oversight or public input.

It is more important than ever for supporters of foreign aid to ensure their voices are heard. In the coming weeks, the Senate Appropriations Committee will unveil its 302(b) allocations. Americans should contact their members of Congress and tell them that low foreign aid funding levels neither represent our values as Americans nor protect our interests abroad. If the United States is going to continue to be a global leader, we must continue to make the kinds of investments in foreign aid and international development that help people out of poverty and demonstrate our commitment and engagement in world affairs.

Kadden is the senior legislative manager at InterAction, an alliance of more than 180 U.S.-based NGOs.

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