On July 9, the House Committee on Appropriations approved its Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 spending bill for State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (SFOPS). The committee’s vote broke down along party lines, with 29 Democrats in favor and 21 Republicans opposed. Building on POMED’s new report, President Trump’s FY21 Budget: Examining U.S. Assistance to the Middle East and North Africa in the Age of COVID-19, which analyzes U.S. aid to this region, we have identified nine key features of the FY21 House bill.
- As expected, the House once again rejected the Trump administration’s anemic proposed foreign affairs budget, appropriating more than $20 billion over President Trump’s FY21 request. The House appropriation of $65.87 billion is 49 percent more than the administration’s request ($44.1 billion) and 16 percent more than Congress appropriated in FY20 ($56.6 billion). It is clear that the House continues to view the administration’s efforts to cut foreign affairs spending as ill-advised and reckless.
- The House bill does not earmark funds for MENA countries to combat the coronavirus pandemic, but it does include $8.4 billion in additional aid for several accounts to support COVID-19 response, some of which could be used in MENA.
- For the second consecutive year, the House conditioned $260 million of Egypt’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) on human rights. Although the House once again recommended $1.3 billion in FMF grants for Egypt, the same level since 1987, concern appears to be growing over Egypt’s repression. Like last year, the FY21 House bill makes $260 million of the FMF contingent on the secretary of state certifying that Egypt has met certain human rights conditions. And the bill again ties the release of $13 million of the FMF to the Egyptian government’s payment of restitution to April Corley, an American citizen who was badly injured in 2015 when the Egyptian Air Force mistakenly attacked her tourist convoy with U.S.-provided military equipment. The House bill gives the secretary of state the authority, on national security grounds, to waive the human rights certification for $247 million of the FMF, but affords no such waiver authority with respect to the $13 million for April Corley.
- The House bill recommends only $191.4 million in total aid for Tunisia, $50 million less than it received in each of the last two years. In the FY19 and FY20 appropriations acts, Tunisia received, on top of $191.5 million in bilateral economic and security aid, an extra $50 million from other accounts and prior-year funds, respectively. The House’s decision not to include such supplementary funds for FY21 probably reflects budgetary constraints rather than a lack of interest in the sole democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab uprisings.
- In a clear rebuke of the Trump administration’s suspension of aid to the Palestinians, the House bill recommends $300 million in total aid for the West Bank and Gaza. This is twice as much as Congress appropriated in FY20. Moreover, the FY21 committee report accompanying the bill “notes with concern that the Administration has not programmed the $75,000,000 appropriated under Economic Support Funds in the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2020.” In addition, as POMED anticipated, the House rejected the administration’s proposal to replace bilateral aid for the West Bank and Gaza with a $200 million “Diplomatic Progress Fund.” The White House apparently seeks to use the new fund to reward or punish Palestinian authorities for their cooperation, or lack thereof, with the Trump “peace plan,” with minimal congressional oversight.
- The House bill recommends the significant sum of $300 million for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)—the same level that the NED received in FY20, which represented a 66.7 percent increase from FY19. There had been some congressional concerns that the NED, an independent, nongovernmental institution dedicated to democracy promotion, could spend all of this money responsibly. But the NED apparently won over members of Congress by proposing to use some of the funds to fill aid gaps left by the administration in places such as the West Bank/Gaza and Syria. The original subcommittee markup only included $200 million for the NED, but Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), the chairwoman of the Committee on Appropriations, increased the appropriation in the full committee.
- As predicted by congressional staff interviewed for POMED’s budget report, the House bill did not earmark any funding for Algeria, a country undergoing transition following the 2019 ouster of longtime autocratic president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The Trump administration requested $2 million for Algeria from the Economic Support and Development Fund (ESDF), seeing a modest opportunity to promote economic liberalization. Congressional staffers indicated that, despite the absence of an earmark, Congress would not object if the administration were to use other aid funds for Algeria.
- In a sign of support for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), the House bill recommends $218.45 million for the bureau, nearly twice what the administration requested ($115 million). President Trump’s lack of interest in protecting human rights has made it difficult for DRL, the lead bureau for international democracy promotion, to influence administration policy on all but a few select issues (such as international religious freedom and human rights in Iran). By recommending 22 percent more than DRL received from Congress in FY20, the House Committee on Appropriations is clearly seeking to bolster DRL’s role, and that of human rights, in U.S. foreign policy.
- The House bill recommends just $20 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), slightly more than Trump’s FY21 request but 60 percent less than what Congress appropriated in FY20. And the bill earmarks all $20 million exclusively for scholarship programs. In recent years, MEPI, a State Department regional assistance program focused on civil society, scholarships, and private-sector growth, has de-emphasized projects related to democratic reform or human rights in favor of projects related to economic empowerment. (MEPI’s flagship scholarships for Arab youth, which it calls “leadership” programs, are the Student Leaders, Leaders for Democracy, and Tomorrow’s Leaders programs.) The House’s small appropriation, and its restriction to a subset of MEPI’s work, suggest growing questions in Congress about the initiative’s value.
What Happens Next?
The next step in the FY21 appropriations process is for the Senate Committee on Appropriations to mark up its version of the SFOPS bill. At this time, it is unclear when this will happen. Congressional contacts tell POMED that the markup may not take place until after the November election. If a full bill is not passed by the end of the fiscal year (September 30), a continuing resolution, which provides budget authority to federal agencies and programs to continue operations until the regular appropriations acts are enacted, will be required to keep the government running.
Major modifications to appropriations language are more difficult in a continuing resolution, which could be extended for the entire fiscal year in lieu of passing a full appropriations bill for FY21. If and when the Senate Committee on Appropriations convenes, the committee’s stance on many of the issues identified above will depend on the positions adopted by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.
Andrew Miller is POMED’s Deputy Director for Policy and the lead author of POMED’s June 2020 report, President Trump’s FY21 Budget: Examining U.S. Assistance to the Middle East and North Africa in the Age of COVID-19. Follow him on Twitter @AndrwPMiller.