Democracy Dies in Darkness

PostEverything | Perspective

Got a pot of money to fight Russian interference? Here’s how not to.

If politics were the reason for an unspent $120 million, it would be hard to detect.

March 8, 2018 at 10:30 AM

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants to cut the State Department budget by a third. Is that why he hasn’t spent money allocated to fight Russian election interference? (Jonathan Ernst/AFP/Getty Images)

A pair of Democratic congressmen wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week demanding to know why the State Department hasn’t spent a penny of the $120 million approved to counter Russian election interference.

It is “a dereliction of duty to ignore this threat,” Reps. Ted Lieu (Calif.) and Joaquin Castro (Tex.) wrote.

The answer to the lawmakers’ question — How come the money is still sitting in federal coffers? — is both complicated and simple. The simple explanation: Tillerson didn’t have to spend the money, even though Congress told him to.

Related: [Trump says he’ll counter Russian meddling]

The larger and more complex explanation, however, is what makes it easy to deny that politics regarding Russia have anything to do with it: All sorts of federal money sits idle. At the end of the last fiscal year, for example, the federal government had more than $340 billion lying around unspent, according to an analysis of federal budget data by Christina Ho, a former senior Treasury Department official. The State Department, she said, was one of the worst offenders.

The department is now promising to spend at least some of the money, and spokespeople for Tillerson have denied that any Trump administration political allergy to the question of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign is to blame for its not being spent in the first place. But how would anyone know, given the arcane way federal budgeting works — and Tillerson’s view of government spending in general?

Related: [Mueller gathers evidence that 2017 Seychelles meeting was effort to establish back channel to Kremlin]

Most federal agencies routinely wind up with at least 10 percent of their budget unspent at the end of the year. Bureaucratic snarls and mismatches between projects and spending plans are among a host of reasons for leftover money, but politics can certainly be in the mix. “It’s not that there’s no politics,” Ho said in an interview, “but in my experience, when that happens it’s usually because of inefficiency or incompetence.”

Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, concurs. Unspent money “happens a lot, and it’s not necessarily nefarious,” she said. What’s more, agencies tend to be reluctant to relinquish control of the money, if only on paper.

That may not be the case with Tillerson and the State Department. Tillerson has set goals of cutting the department’s budget by about 30 percent, reducing staff and making bureaucratic changes to streamline authority. Congress ignored him last year and appropriated more money than he had requested. Republicans, including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), lectured him publicly about the importance of a robust department.

Related: [New Russia sanctions likely coming ‘within a week,’ spy chief says]

Republican orthodoxy is generally aligned with Tillerson’s view that the government spends too much money. That was President Richard Nixon’s argument when he refused to spend $12 billion in congressionally appropriated money in 1973-74. Congress won that power struggle, passing a 1974 law over Nixon’s veto that established much of the modern federal budget structure.

Agencies can request to move money around, often under a budget maneuver called reprogramming, but they must get permission from Congress. “There’s some flexibility for agencies,” de Rugy said, “but you cannot take that money for the Russian interference and use it for a diplomatic mission in France unless you can prove that it’s specifically related.”

Related: [Trump on Russia meddling in 2018 vote: ‘We’ll counteract whatever they do’]

A 2014 study by the Mercatus Center said budget procedures encourage agencies to go on annual spending sprees before the budget year ends on Sept. 30. If money still isn’t spent, it can be returned to the Treasury, but that rarely happens. The State Department had the worst record on sprees among major agencies, spending more than 35 percent of its budget in September each year between 2010 and 2013, that study showed.

Still, Tillerson’s budget-cutting goals don’t necessarily explain why his department hasn’t touched money urgently set aside to support anti-propaganda efforts, which could include countering false stories or deceptions such as the ones U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia deployed against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.

The $120 million is a combination of allocations for two budget years and includes redirected money from the Defense Department. To spend the money as intended, the State Department probably would have to hire Russian-language speakers and specialists in Russian cyber methods to work at the Global Engagement Center. There are no Russian speakers on staff in that office, as reported by the New York Times.

President Trump maintains that his campaign had “no collusion” with Russia and that anything Moscow did had no effect on the outcome of the race. Yet Democrats say that Trump’s fierce rebuttal of any suggestion that he owes his upset victory to Russian help means his administration is pussyfooting around the issue and has not adequately prepared for certain Russian interference in the midterm elections this year.

Neither the Trump administration nor the three congressional committees looking at Russian interference in the U.S. elections has publicly released recommendations, legislation or other policy instructions, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release recommendations this month.

Speaking alongside Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven at the White House on Tuesday, Trump said that “certainly there was meddling” and that the government must defend itself.

Asked whether he was worried about Russian intrusion in this year’s elections, Trump replied:  “No, because we’ll counteract whatever they do.”

Just not without spending the money set aside to do it.

Anne Gearan is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, with a focus on foreign policy and national security. She covered the Hillary Clinton campaign and the State Department for The Post before joining the White House beat. She joined the paper in 2012.

Post Recommends

We're glad you're enjoying The Washington Post.

Get access to this story, and every story, on the web and in our apps with our Basic Digital subscription.

Welcome to The Washington Post

Thank you for subscribing