The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congress scorns Trump plan to cut, weaponize foreign aid

“What an ugly picture this budget paints of America,” the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, greets Faustin-Archange Touadera, president of the Central African Republic, at the State Department on Thursday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Mark Green did his best to put a winning face on a losing proposition.

The administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) told Congress about a proposed “increase” in his budget and funding for a program that “will allow us to maintain the highest level ever of U.S. humanitarian assistance programming.”

But Democrats and Republicans at Tuesday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing saw right through Green’s masquerade. They can read budgets and they’re aware of the Trump administration’s plans to significantly cut foreign assistance.

Congress has ignored larger proposed cuts twice before, a fate that surely awaits the current plan. More than numbers, the budget represents a steady American retreat from global leadership and an attempt to weaponize foreign assistance. (Trump last month announced the end of foreign aid to countries in Central America, accusing those governments of purposely sending migrant caravans to the United States.)

Green’s attempt to disguise the Trump administration’s planned 24 percent cut in the international affairs budget was clear from the second sentence of his statement. He touted a $19.2 billion budget plan for his agency as “an increase of $2.4 billion, or 14 percent, over last year’s request.”

But that comparison is misleading. The proposal floated Tuesday actually represents a decrease from the $24.5 billion Congress approved for the agency’s budget.

Green’s talk of “the highest level ever” of humanitarian assistance contrasts with the reality of Trump’s plan to collapse several programs into one and drop overall funding by a third, according to an analysis by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which advocates for strong international funding.

“Now is not the time to slash effective, lifesaving programs that help create a safer and more secure world,” said InterAction, an alliance of international organizations.

Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) didn’t buy Green’s line.

Engel listed the damage that would result from Trump’s foreign assistance budget: “Core humanitarian accounts and democracy and governance programs slashed by 40 percent. Maternal and child health programs cut by a quarter. Food security, nutrition assistance, basic education all chopped by roughly half. Food for Peace zeroed out completely.”

“What an ugly picture this budget paints of America,” he said at the hearing.

It was a bipartisan rejection of Trump’s plan. The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (Tex.), told Green that development and humanitarian assistance cuts can “cost us more in the medium and long term.”

When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared in March before the House Appropriations subcommittee on state, foreign operations, and related programs, he got an earful from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). She was upset not just about the budget proposal, but about Trump’s insolence toward black nations, an attitude reflected in his budget.

Complaining about his planned cuts to African aid, Lee said they follow “a well-documented track record … from the president identifying certain countries as ‘s-hole countries.’”

Like Trump’s insistence that NATO members increase contributions to the defense alliance, Green urged “others to do their part” in humanitarian assistance. That’s ironic, because Uncle Sam falls far short of doing his part.

Under Republican and Democratic administrations, the U.S. rate of development assistance has been well below the United Nations target of 0.7 percent of gross national income. The U.S. contribution is a paltry 0.17 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Lee’s legislation would boost U.S. assistance to 1 percent of gross domestic product, a similar economic measure of the nation’s wealth.

The $34 billion in development assistance the United States contributed in 2018 is much more than any other nation. But it should be. The United States is the richest nation. Furthermore, most of those billions flow through U.S. outfits. “Approximately 70 percent of all U.S. foreign assistance is implemented through U.S. organizations,” according to the State Department.

As important as that assistance is, as much good as it does, it represents Uncle Sam’s pocket change — less than 1 percent of his budget.

One example of the good it does is in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), launched by President George W. Bush in 2003, “helped save 17 million lives and ensured 2.4 million babies have been born HIV-free,” according to a Global Leadership Coalition fact sheet.

Trump, however, considers foreign aid a transactional exercise. “President Trump has made it clear that U.S. foreign assistance should serve America’s interests,” Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

The administration narrowly defines those interests and does not fully appreciate the role foreign assistance plays in boosting national security.

“Development assistance is a national security issue also,” Lee said during an interview. “We have three pillars of our national security — development assistance, diplomacy and defense.”

That sentiment was echoed by 141 retired generals and admirals. “Challenges cannot be solved by military force alone,” they wrote in a letter to Congress last month opposing cuts to the international affairs budget. “They will require strategic investments in development and diplomacy to tackle the root causes of conflict in order to succeed for the long term.”

Trump’s transactional approach also can lead to shortsighted, counterproductive decisions, such as the one to cut assistance to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the Central American countries the administration claims are not doing enough to stop migration. This weaponizes assistance by threatening to withhold it despite the humanitarian need.

“We deal in reality,” Pompeo said. “It’s not enough to take taxpayer money and spend it there. You need to get something for that, and that’s what we are engaged in now. … This is the most generous nation in the history of civilization.”

Too generous, in Trump’s view.

Read more:

With so many ‘acting’ officials, we need a president who acts like one

Domestic terrorism story renews fears over Trump’s coddling of white nationalists

State of the nation: Alleged white-supremacist killer finds inspiration in Trump

Inspection finds ICE jail’s conditions endanger detainees’ health, safety

Did ICE ignore health and safety standards for jailed immigrants?