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In June and July, the House and Senate appropriations committees passed their respective versions of the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16). In a number of key areas, the House and Senate committees proposed similar changes in funding levels or legislative language, which are now expected to become enacted when the bills are finalized—most likely by the end of this year. In several other significant areas, there are meaningful differences between the two bills, and important decisions will need to be made by appropriators in reconciling the bills.
Congressional appropriators are proposing to decrease the amount of State and Foreign Operations funding in FY16, with the House bill proposing an overall amount of $47.8 billion and the Senate proposing $49 billion this year. Even if the final bill is enacted at the higher level of $49 billion, this would represent a continuation of the recent trend of asking the administration to do more with less: the top line level of the State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill has declined steadily from $53.0 billion in FY12 to $49.2 billion in FY15.
- This year’s House bill would provide full backing of the $134.4 million request for Tunisia in recognition of “the positive steps made by Tunisia along its democratic transition”—a bilateral assistance level that would nearly double Tunisia’s funding in FY15. But in comparison, Senate appropriators fall short on bilateral assistance to Tunisia, providing only 65 percent of the amount requested by the administration.
- When the administration announced a resumption of aid to Egypt in April 2015, U.S. officials also announced they would continue to request $1.3 billion in annual military assistance for Egypt. Congressional appropriators match that request and renew Egypt’s annual bilateral military assistance at $1.3 billion in FY16. Senate appropriators renew their FY15 approach on conditionality for Egypt’s military aid package, which includes a national security waiver that has undermined the effectiveness of such conditions. In an effort to signal ongoing congressional concern about the state of human rights and reform in the country, both bills include reporting requirements that would require the administration to submit assessments of the internal situation in the country.
- The House and Senate approach to Bahrain differs significantly in this year’s bills. The Senate renews prohibitions on crowd control items to the country and includes a new provision requiring an updated assessment of the government’s implementation of the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). The House bill does not prohibit crowd control items to Bahrain and offers false praise for “Bahrain’s progress to engage in a national dialogue to promote reform and governance.”
- This year’s Senate bill includes a number of provisions that indicate a desire by appropriators to weigh in more strongly on democracy and governance programming. The Senate bill includes lengthy new policy language on democracy programs, including the renewal of reporting requirements from the ADVANCE Democracy Act of 2007 regarding the administration’s efforts to promote democracy. For the first time since Congress began including a figure for democracy programs in FY14, Senate appropriators include a regional breakdown for democracy programming, including $409 million for the Middle East and North Africa.
- Senate appropriators have inserted a number of provisions in this year’s bill that aim to increase the level of transparency in U.S. security assistance. If passed, new legislative requirements would expand congressional oversight of U.S. security assistance programs and increase resources to U.S. government offices tasked with vetting the intended recipients of such assistance.
- If enacted, the Senate provision on countering violent extremism (CVE) would include a strong emphasis on governance in fragile states as a central element in the administration’s counterterrorism strategy.
- Congressional appropriators rejected administration requests to weaken longstanding pro-democracy language in the Brownback Amendment, as well as a request to weaken a section restricting the provision of U.S. assistance after military coups.
- Both the House and the Senate bills propose to increase funding to the National Endowment for Democracy to an all-time high of $170 million.
- Concerns about Yemen have led both the House and the Senate to defer funding to the country. But if and when a negotiated political solution is found in Yemen, administration officials may have to reprogram and piece together funding to support reconstruction and reconciliation efforts in the country, a process that could delay the delivery of critical assistance to the country.
Cole Bockenfeld is the Advocacy Director at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). He has studied the Middle East and global diplomacy at the University of Arkansas, Georgetown University, and the University of London. Prior to joining POMED, he worked for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) on electoral assistance programs in Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, and the West Bank and Gaza, including fieldwork in Beirut and Baghdad. He also conducted research with the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) in Amman. His writing on Middle Eastern politics and U.S. foreign policy has been published by the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has spoken on Middle East affairs with numerous media outlets including the New York Times, NPR, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Al-Jazeera, and Alhurra.