Republican ‘budget hawks’ zero in on foreign aid

WASHINGTON, Jan. 25 – With the U.S. national debt standing at 14 trillion dollars, the Barack Obama administration pledging to tackle the monstrous deficit and a Republican-led House of Representatives pushing for a “Cut-and-Grow” Congress, budget hawks are zeroing in on international affairs spending – from diplomacy to development.

On Tuesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing to discuss “urgent problems” related to the United Nations. Committee Chair Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pledged to reintroduce legislation that would make contributions to the U.N. by the U.S. – the world body’s largest funder – conditional on U.N. reform.

In early December, Ros-Lehtinen publicly took aim at diplomacy and development expenses. “I have identified and will propose a number of cuts to the State Department and Foreign Aid budgets,” she said at the time. “There is much fat in these budgets, which makes some cuts obvious. Others will be more difficult but necessary to improve the efficiency of U.S. efforts and accomplish more with less.”

First on Ros-Lehtinen’s list appears to be the United Nations. Others at Tuesday’s hearing urged the withholding of some U.S. funds, citing allegations of overall corruption and dissatisfaction with the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, while still others, like Rep. Steve Chabot, called for a complete defunding of the world body. According to the Better World Campaign, Congress approved some 4.4 billion dollars of U.N. funding last year.

“In the past, Congress has gone along by willingly paying what successive Administrations asked for – without enough oversight,” said Ros-Lehtinen in a statement read in her absence during the proceedings. “This is one of the first true U.N. reform hearings held by this Committee in almost four years, but it won’t be the last.”

Peter Yeo, vice president of public policy at the U.N. Foundation and a witness at the hearing, on the other hand argued that threatening to withhold contributions sends the wrong signal – one of unilateralism – and that it does nothing to advance Washington’s interests.

“Only by being at the table can the U.S. bring about the change that is necessary,” echoed witness Mark Quarterman, senior advisor at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Last week, the 165-member Republican Study Committee (RSC) submitted a drastic proposal that would reduce federal spending by 2.5 trillion dollars over 10 years – a full 1.39 billion dollars of which would come from cuts to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The proposal also included a 250-million-dollar reduction of economic assistance to Egypt, which totals about 1.3 billion dollars, a 17-million-dollar cut to the International Fund for Ireland, and the virtual elimination of the U.S. Trade Development Agency with a 55-million-dollar purge.

Critics say that the cuts, spearheaded by Rep. Jim Jordan, along with similar calls to radically chop elements of the international affairs budget, will cripple the administration’s tri-legged strategy of Defence, Diplomacy and Development.

The proposed GOP purge “rejects a key principle that military leaders and Presidents of both parties have clearly recognised: Foreign assistance and diplomacy are essential to United States national security,” Rep. Howard Berman, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Monday.

In his statement, Berman also referenced similar assertions made previously by Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, which expressed the intimate links between the maintenance of national security and civilian agencies that conduct foreign assistance and diplomacy.

“For the nation’s diplomatic and development initiatives… large cuts could be devastating,” wrote political pundit Conor Williams in an article late last month. “More important, wholesale cuts to the international affairs budget could cost the United States massively in lost political and economic opportunities.”

In a policy speech at the Centre for Global Development (CGD) last Wednesday, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah argued that his agency was worth the nation’s investment. He highlighted organisational efforts to streamline, focus more on results-oriented aid and be more cost-effective, announcing the launch of a new evaluation programme that will measure aid effectiveness.

“We need to understand that unlike other industries, unlike an enterprise, we have no interest in our own growth and our own perpetuity,” Shah also said, drawing attention to U.S.A.I.D.’s goal of graduating countries from U.S. assistance, which translates into reductions in aid spending.

Some observers point out that not all Republicans are on board with the RSC’s extreme cuts and that political wrangling within the GOP will likely tone it down going forth.

“Is there going to be debate and discussion as we move forward?” RSC chairman Rep. Jim Jordan asked at a press conference Thursday. “Certainly. But we think this is a good first step, and we’re willing to have that debate.” (IPS/GIN)

More from Around NYC