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Opinion Tillerson pushes back on White House’s proposed cuts to State Department and USAID

Rex Tillerson on Feb. 1 pledged to “represent the interest of all of the American people” shortly after being sworn in as secretary of state. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is pushing back against the White House’s proposal to drastically slash funding for diplomacy and development, a sign he intends to fight for his department’s mission inside the Trump administration.

Tillerson’s formal appeal of the Office of Management and Budget’s initial budget proposal seeks to restore some of the huge cuts proposed by the White House for State Department and foreign assistance funding, according to an internal State Department memo I obtained. The memo says that Tillerson is mindful of the president’s promise to make government leaner and more accountable and that he understands OMB’s mission to find savings.

“However, he is deeply concerned about the timing and the size of the reductions and he will appeal to rationalize and reduce our size and structure in a matter that makes us leaner and more efficient,” it reads. “We intend to make the strongest argument possible in our appeal that the Department needs this additional funding to ensure the United States remains active, engaged and influential throughout the world and that any changes to our mission or way or doing business occur in the context of the National Security Strategy.”

The memo is part of an internal discussion among State Department offices about Tillerson’s response to the budget cuts. It does not come from him directly. But it confirms reports that the White House gave the State Department a initial budget proposal known as a “passback” that allots $34.6 billion for both the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development in fiscal 2018. If enacted, that would be a 37 percent reduction from the fiscal 2017 level. The White House proposed $23.2 billion for foreign assistance, which is 38 percent below this year.

The State Department declined to comment on the authenticity or the substance of the memo. John Czwartacki, OMB’s communications director, said: We are working collaboratively with all our agency heads, including Secretary Tillerson, to formulate details within the President’s FY2018 Budget Blueprint. That said, it is premature at this time to comment on any specifics of this on-going, internal discussion.”

Multiple State Department officials told me that Tillerson and his senior staff have been talking with heads of various bureaus and offices at the State Department to get a better idea of their top priorities, as part of his effort to shape his position on the budget cuts. “Our appeal is focused on increasing the overall topline and will seek to restore cuts made to our core economic and development accounts, security assistance, and humanitarian aid,” the memo states. “We are also asking OMB for more time and flexibility to enable us to determine most bureau and country level allocations at a later date.”

Economic and development assistance would be cut by 61 percent under the White House’s initial proposal from fiscal 2017 levels, according to the memo. Humanitarian assistance accounts would be cut by 36 percent. The White House’s proposal would shift almost all foreign military financing grants to loans, except for the security assistance committed to Israel, the memo states.

The White House is also proposing to eliminate all funding for the Green Climate Fund and bilateral climate change funding, the memo states. Climate change programs were not mentioned in the memo as one of the things Tillerson wants to fight to save.

Overall, the memo notes that the State Department’s budget for next year will not be determined until after several more twists and turns both inside the administration and in Congress, which is in charge of the appropriations bills. The White House plans to release more details of its budget proposal, including top line allocations for each agency, on March 16, according to the memo.

Several GOP senators have said that the White House’s proposed State Department cuts will not make it through the legislative process.

“It’s dead on arrival, it’s not going to happen, it would be a disaster,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee for the State Department and foreign operations, said this week. “This budget destroys soft power, it puts our diplomats at risk and it’s going nowhere.”

The bottom line is that funding for diplomacy and development will be the subject of a series of negotiations and will likely fall somewhere between what the White House and Congress each want. Tillerson’s challenge is to navigate between those two power centers and do as much as he can to defend the programs he believes in.