Lawmakers not ready to give $5 billion more to USAID so easily

A key pillar in President Barack Obama’s foreign policy agenda is under fire on Capitol Hill as lawmakers debate whether more money would bolster the U.S. Agency for International Development or merely pump cash into an overextended organization.

Obama has called for a doubling of USAID's workforce by 2015 and the agency is asking for about $21 billion to fund its operations during the next fiscal year, a nearly $5 billion increase over last fiscal year.

But over the years USAID has been marginalized politically and frequently referred to by politicians as America’s bleeding heart, attempting to lend taxpayer dollars to failing countries while its consistently declining workforce – due in part to more alluring and higher paying careers in the private sector – is increasingly seen as being out of touch with the modern realities of U.S. foreign policy.

The roiling debate of how – and whether – to revive the agency came to a head last week as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s State, Foreign Operations subcommittee, voiced concerns that have been echoing on Capitol Hill long before USAID head Dr. Rajiv Shah took over in December.

“USAID needs to change its culture, and change the way it does business, if it wants the kind of money you are asking for,” said Leahy at an appropriations hearing last week.

“There is a disturbing detachment between some USAID employees at missions overseas who spend much of their time in comfortable offices behind imposing security barriers, living in relative high style, and the impoverished people they are there to help,” he said.

Leahy later added that he recognized that those “changes” would not occur overnight and that he was prepared to give the agency adequate time to grow into them.

But how much time the agency needs is an open debate. And USAID argues that as the weeks push on, with the agency’s global demands – from natural disaster assistance to development in Afghanistan – continuing to rise, so does the need for funding.

The agency’s budget has grown in recent years, from $13 billion 3 years ago to more than $16 billion last fiscal year.

But USAID’s requested increase in next year’s funding comes at a time when many lawmakers are going to be forced to answer voters in November on matters of spending and, combined with an injured economy, many are more reluctant than usual to increase the funding of an agency in which they don’t have full confidence.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in February used her department and USAID’s response to the earthquake in Haiti as a reminder to the Senate Appropriations Committee of why Congress needed to increase funding for foreign service efforts.

The former senator also pointed to one of the main complaints lawmakers have, saying that full-time employees often get the job done better than more costly contractors.

“Our efforts in Haiti have made clear that State and USAID must be able to respond quickly and effectively to human tragedies,” she said.

“Rather than building their expertise, we have too often relied on contractors, sometimes with little oversight. This budget will allow us to expand the Foreign Service by over 600 positions, including an additional 410 positions for the State Department and 200 for USAID.”

The combined foreign operations budget request for the next fiscal year is a $6.1 billion increase over last year’s and includes $4.2 billion for humanitarian assistance programs.

Just one month into his role as head of the USAID, Shah and the agency took the helm of American aid to Haiti, deploying hundreds of employees to join the United Nations in assisting with the country’s recovery.

As a result, the White House requested $2.8 billion in disaster aid for Haiti last month, $1.49 billion of which is for the State Department and the USAID’s work.

In addition to vast disaster efforts, the USAID budget also includes program funding, like the $680 million for malaria programs abroad and the $350 million to fight the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees USAID, said last week that he was interested in seeing the USAID harness its focus abroad so that it can control its spending more tightly.

“I look at the resources available and everything you guys want to do and they don’t match,” he said.

Gregg has said, however, that he supports Obama’s push to increase foreign operations spending as part of a broader national security strategy.