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Senators Defend Foreign Aid in Fresh Pitch Against Trump's Cuts

  • Group says USAID should get a seat on White House council
  • Bipartisan task force makes case for continued ‘soft power’

A bipartisan task force of U.S. senators and former diplomats is pushing back against the Trump administration’s effort to cut funding for foreign aid and development, urging instead that the strategy for overseas assistance should be revamped.

Far from reducing the role of such “soft power” diplomacy, the task force headed by Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana and Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire proposed giving the U.S. Agency for International Development a seat on the White House’s National Security Council. In a report to be released on Monday, the group also calls for a national diplomacy and development strategy to set priorities for spending.

“It is not in the national interest to remove the development leg from the U.S. national security stool,” said the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing U.S. Foreign Assistance. “Our friends seek our continued leadership, our adversaries fear it, and Americans should demand it.”

The report reflects the strong push-back from Congress that President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have faced over their proposal to slash the budget of the State Department and USAID by about 30 percent, even as the military’s budget is increased. Tillerson has said Trump’s “America First” foreign policy vision will focus on keeping Americans safe and fighting terrorism, and he would orient diplomacy “toward fulfilling that commitment.”

Merger Weighed

One proposal under consideration is merging USAID, an independent agency chiefly responsible for foreign aid donations, into the State Department. Under the budget plan for fiscal 2018, Tillerson also would defund what’s known as the Development Assistance account, whose focus is investing in longer-term projects such as clean water, economic development and good governance.

The task force calls both ideas mistakes. On the contrary, it calls for merging some State Department functions, such as the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources, into USAID.

In an interview, Young said the report was part of a push to make sure the administration includes development aid, along with military power and diplomatic power, in its “America First” approach.

“They understand that there are three instruments of national power that need to be brought to bear if the United States is going to be safe and secure and facilitate development,” Young said. “‘We want to make sure we maintain USAID as an independent agency, recognizing that development assistance is an entirely distinct discipline.”

‘Wasteful at Worst’

While noting that foreign aid has provided life-saving help in crises, such as the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the aftermath of the deadly Asian tsunami in 2004, the report acknowledges that the system is “needlessly complicated at best, inefficient and wasteful at worst” and in need of reform.

“Should we be thinking about how we do development in a changed world ? Absolutely yes,” Daniel Runde, a fellow at CSIS who oversaw the writing of the report, said in an interview. He said the Trump administration will be “skeptical about it until the first time there’s a pandemic -- I don’t hope for one -- or when there’s a mass forced migration crisis on the border. Then they’re going to see the necessity of this.”

In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 17, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said there had been “no pre-determination on the issue of absorbing USAID into the State Department.”

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