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Congressional resistance leaves Trump’s foreign aid cuts ‘dead on arrival’

Liberian Red Cross distributes food provided by USAID to Monrovia's West Point neighborhood. Photo: Liberian Red Cross

The Trump administration’s federal budget released on Thursday deals a 36 percent cut to the State Department – most coming from foreign aid and humanitarian programs. Faith leaders, politicians and aid groups immediately condemned the budget, saying it harms U.S. national security and endangers the lives of millions of vulnerable people around the world.

More than 20 lawmakers from both parties criticized the budget, titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” Opposition within the Republican party renders the proposal “dead on arrival,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in February. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., echoed the point in his response to the budget proposal declaring it “cannot pass the Senate.”

Many of the lawmakers defended the need for diplomacy and development to supplement and sometimes deter military intervention. They cited the fact that foreign aid makes up less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Making cuts to the budget would have a negligible impact on reducing the federal government a the deficit.

“I am very concerned by reports of deep cuts that could damage efforts to combat terrorism, save lives, and create opportunities for American workers,” Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said in a statement.

The statements contrast with the administration’s characterization of the budget. It makes a series of cuts to offset a $54 billion increase in defense spending. Officials described the change as a security shift from soft power (diplomacy and development) to hard power (military). USAID said its budget “advances the national security interests of the United States,” in a press release announcing the cut.

Invoking hard and soft power as opposing forces struck U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s President and CEO Liz Schrayer as an outdated notion of foreign affairs.

“This debate between hard and soft power is a relic of the Cold War that ended after 9/11,” Schrayer said in a statement. “Congress must recognize that we face complex 21st-century threats from the rise of ISIS to the pandemics that can show up on our shores. Reject these dangerous cuts to diplomacy and development and invest in smart power – military and civilian tools alike. The stakes are just too high for America to retreat.”

The two pages devoted to State and USAID in the budget describe some of the programs that will be affected by the cuts. Assistance to Israel escapes unscathed. The $3.1 billion it received in mostly military assistance makes it the largest aid recipient from the U.S. Also spared are Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Malaria and TB, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The budget says it will maintain commitments set by the Obama administration. However, there are no promises that it will maintain spending levels for the programs after those commitments expire.

The savings in the budget come through the elimination of payments for the U.N.’s Global Climate Change Initiative, a reduction in payments to the U.N. for peacekeeping and other programs, a reduction in payments to multilateral institutions, namely the World Bank, and the elimination of the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance account.

General language about reorganizing programs and eliminating duplicate work make it uncertain what other programs the administration feels are unnecessary. Aid groups say this is the wrong move at a time when the world faces a series of major crises.

“The proposed reduction in foreign aid would set us back decades,” Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, said in a statement. “Lives depend on it. And our country’s future depends on it as well. We can either help the poor and vulnerable develop and govern themselves – as we have been doing successfully – or we will be forced to confront these problems when they arrive on our shores – whether in the form of disease, violence or migration.”

The unlikely acceptance of the budget nor its potential harm did not appear to bother the administration. White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney was asked directly about whether there were concerns that people will suffer as a result of the cuts. Mulvaney replied saying the budget follows through on Trump’s pledge to “spend less money on people overseas and more money on people back home.”

The emerging famines in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria show where Mulvaney is wrong. Some 20 million people are at risk across the countries and more than 1.4 million children could die from hunger if nothing is done. Food aid and other assistance funded and administered by the U.S. is a crucial part of the emergency response. Other donor countries and aid groups will be forced to scramble to make up for lost money from the world’s largest donor.

“These cuts will be catastrophic for millions of families in developing countries,” Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children, said in a statement. “U.S. funding for maternal and child health, for instance, has helped reduce child deaths by more than one-half over the last two decades, saving millions of lives.”

Broad opposition in Congress to the budget should allay some of the concerns that the foreign aid cuts will become reality. It is an oft-cited area to trim the budget, but it also enjoys strong bipartisan support – as evidenced by the immediate reactions. Trump has yet to name someone to lead USAID, creating a cloud of uncertainty as to how the administration will deal with the agency even if its funding level does not change.

The budget proposal for the State Department:

Reactions from other aid groups:

“A reduction of roughly one-third in foreign assistance proposed by the Trump administration – which includes life-saving efforts in global health and hunger, and responses to 60 humanitarian crises a year on average – endangers U.S. values and interests abroad. What’s more, the U.S. foreign assistance budget makes up a mere 1 percent of the federal budget –  a tiny category of discretionary spending which saves lives and spreads goodwill around the world.” — IRC President and CEO David Miliband

“The White House’s proposed cuts to the U.S. foreign assistance budget would remove vital funding from U.S. efforts to aid vulnerable communities around the globe at a critical time. … Eliminating agencies tailored to bolster U.S. leadership abroad or reducing our role in international institutions that bear the costs of a global system only weakens America’s ability to lead.” — InterAction CEO Sam Worthington

“The fight against global poverty is one of America’s proudest and smartest investments. At one penny of every budget dollar these low cost programs are a wise investments that ensure girls are able to go to school, small-business owners strengthen the local economy, and millions of small farmers are able to produce enough crops to prevent hunger. Our pennies are being put to good work and the U.S. Agency for International Development has undertaken bold efforts to further increase the effectiveness of our foreign aid dollars. But instead of building on these investments and reforms, this administration is proposing draconian cuts that will have devastating consequences for millions, as well as our foreign policy priorities, national security interests, and the values central to America’s identity. Now is not the time to cut back on development, but to build on progress to make it even more effective.” — Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America

“As an organization committed to the Jewish values of repairing the world, aiding the poor and embracing the stranger, our vision for America’s role in the world is starkly different from that of President Trump. His proposed budget slashes efforts to combat poverty and disease and undermines both U.S. diplomacy and global institutions that work to guarantee the human rights of people worldwide. We call on members of the U.S. Congress to oppose this budget, and we call on American Jews and all Americans who are guided by the value of upholding the dignity of every person to oppose President Trump’s proposed radical cuts to the budget.” — Robert Bank, president and CEO of American Jewish World Service


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]