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Opinion Graham: Trump slashing of State Dept. and foreign aid funding would be ‘dead on arrival’ in Congress

Sen. Lindsey Graham attends the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Feb. 19. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

If the Trump administration proposes a budget that increases defense spending while drastically cutting funding for the State Department and foreign assistance, Congress will reject it and ensure that American soft power continues to be a national security priority, according to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Senate appropriations state and foreign operations subcommittee.

“It’s dead on arrival, it’s not going to happen, it would be a disaster,” Graham said Tuesday. “This budget destroys soft power, it puts our diplomats at risk and it’s going nowhere.”

The Trump administration has not shared many details of its budget proposal with key members of Congress, other than to announce that the administration intends to seek a $54 billion increase in defense spending for fiscal year 2018 over congressionally mandated caps, which would bring the base defense budget to $603 billion for the year, not including emergency supplemental funding. Administration officials also said Monday foreign aid will be cut to pay for it.

“When I hear if we cut foreign aid we can balance the budget, it’s just a complete lie,” said Graham, pointing to the relatively small size of the international affairs budget. “Foreign assistance is an insurance policy. Investing over there, even though we have needs here, makes us safer.”

There are reports that the State Department and foreign assistance budgets could be slashed by 30 percent under the proposal. The State Department declined to comment other than to say Monday that it was working with the White House to review budget priorities and that the department “remains committed to a U.S. foreign policy that advances the security and prosperity of the American people.”

The budget plan was given to agencies by the Office of Management and Budget on Monday with only top line numbers in what’s known as a “skinny budget.” After further negotiations between the White House and the agencies, a full budget proposal is expected in late March.

Graham said there were many other Republicans and Democrats who will join him in the effort to save State Department and foreign assistance funding.

“When the Trump administration has a budget that basically destroys soft power, it’s unnerving to me, because clearly they don’t understand how soft power is essential to winning the war,” he said. “It’s a budget proposal that will probably meet the same fate as Obama’s proposals.”

Graham referred to a letter sent to lawmakers Monday signed by 120 retired generals and admirals urging Congress to defend State Department and foreign assistance funding. The letter was organized by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a non-governmental organization that works with military leaders who support diplomacy and development.

The letter also cites a quote by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who in 2013 as head of U.S. Central Command, said, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Any appropriations bill would need 60 votes to pass, meaning that Democrats could block efforts to slash diplomacy and development funding if they are unified. Sen. Ben Cardin (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me he will fight any such efforts.

“The State Department and USAID are critical national security agencies that keep the American people and our allies around the world safe and secure,” he said. “So it sounds like the president is proposing cutting our national security budget in ways that would have serious and detrimental effects on our national security posture.”

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Jack Reed (R.I.) called Trump’s proposed cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid “shortsighted” in a Tuesday statement.

“Americans know it is a lot more cost-effective to clean your gutters than it is to ignore the problem until you have water coming in through the roof,” Reed said. “President Trump’s lack of foresight could cost Americans dearly.” Sean Bartlett, a spokesman for Cardin, told me that Democrats have also not received any details about the Trump administration’s budget proposal. A spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, the community of organizations that advocate for and depend on the international affairs budget is now mobilizing an effort to explain not only the international justifications for State Department and foreign assistance funding, but also the domestic benefits.

Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, told me that the work of the State Department abroad is key to giving American businesses access to international markets and bringing international investors into American states.

“All we care about is jobs and the economy, but we want to make sure our states get our share of foreign direct investment. If you don’t have the ability to have an open door, then that hurts us for sure,” Granholm said. “Republicans always criticized the Obama administration for leading from behind. This is not leadership at all.”

The State Department has a website that shows how foreign assistance benefits Americans state by state.

The coming budget battle over State Department and foreign assistance funding will also be an early test of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The question is whether he will fight for keeping his department’s budget and whether he will succeed.

“Massive budget cuts would also mean Tillerson would immediately lose credibility in the building and hamstring his own ability to get things done,” former State Department official Michael Fuchs wrote Tuesday. “It’s very early in Tillerson’s tenure, but the early signals aren’t encouraging, and starting out in the hole means it will be that much more difficult to climb out.”