Proposed Cuts to Foreign Affairs Budget Meet Resistance


On March 4, White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney confirmed that the Trump administration will propose “fairly dramatic” cuts to the foreign aid budget in order to help offset the proposed $54 billion increase in defense spending. The United States spends just over $50 billion each year on the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), compared to at least $600 billion on the Pentagon annually, Reuters reported. Mulvaney said that the budget “prioritizes rebuilding the military, including restoring our nuclear capabilities, protecting the nation and securing the border,” and that the subsequent cuts would represent “the largest proposed reduction since the early of the Reagan administration.”

Capitol Hill responded with bipartisan concern over the cuts. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was “very concerned by reports of deep cuts that could damage efforts to combat terrorism, save lives, and create opportunities for American workers.”  Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Ranking Democrat on the same committee, called the proposal “shortsighted and dangerous.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said “foreign assistance is an insurance policy,” and a budget “that basically destroys soft power” would be “dead on arrival…it would be a disaster.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted in response; “Foreign Aid is not charity. We must make sure it is well spent, but it is less than 1 [percent] of budget & critical to our national security.”

After the news of the proposed cuts broke, 121 retired U.S. generals and admirals signed a letter to Congress calling for foreign aid to be protected: “The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps, and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way,” they wrote. Gayle Smith, the last USAID Administrator under former President Barack Obama, commented, “If we were to significantly recede, it would be a matter of life and death for a lot of people.”

According to a State Department memo seen by Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin, Tillerson is making a formal appeal to stagger the deep cuts to State Department and foreign assistance funding. Acknowledging Trump’s promises to make the government leaner, he is apparently “deeply concerned about the timing and the size of the reductions.” To shape his view on where cuts are to be made, Tillerson and his senior staff reportedly have been talking with heads of various bureaus and offices at the State Department to ascertain their top priorities. The memo stated a goal to “restore cuts made to our core economic and development accounts, security assistance, and humanitarian aid.”  

However, Tillerson’s personal views are still unclear. An Associated Press report by Matthew Lee said, “Tillerson has agreed in principle to a proposal to slash foreign aid and diplomatic spending…but wants to spread it out over three years rather than in one dramatic cut.” One official said that Tillerson would seek a budget that “outlines a clearer vision of what the end product is,” instead of focusing on “theoretical” goals.

During the new administration’s first State Department press briefing on March 7, spokesman Mark Toner faced a number of questions from reporters about the rumored cuts. He told reporters that Tillerson “understands the vital work this department does,” and that “his mindset going into the budget process, is how [he can] make sure that [the State Department has] what [it] needs to get [its] job done.” Toner did admit that in any transition, there will inevitably be “reassessment” in order to make the department more efficient without limiting its “efficacy.”

Scott Morris of the Center for Global Development believes that simply by “putting forward the notion of an aid budget that is a third or more smaller, the president has already moved the baseline lower for any likely budget outcome this year and may very well have poisoned the well for honest reform efforts going forward.”