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Lawmakers from both parties resist humanitarian and refugee aid changes

A White House proposal would not only cut funding but reshape humanitarian assistance, particularly for refugees

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks with reporters as he arrives for the votes in the Senate to keep the government open on Feb. 14, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks with reporters as he arrives for the votes in the Senate to keep the government open on Feb. 14, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic and Republican lawmakers say they are determined to block a White House budget proposal that would gut the State Department’s refugee operations and slash overall humanitarian aid levels.

President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget request proposes consolidating three separate humanitarian assistance accounts operated by the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development. The new umbrella account would be managed by USAID and, in theory, have more flexibility to respond to rapidly evolving global crises.

But the White House proposal would not only cut funding but reshape humanitarian assistance, particularly in how it affects refugees.

While longtime humanitarian assistance practitioners say the proposal has some merits, they do not trust the Trump administration’s ultimate intentions and thus oppose it. That’s because the White House is seeking to cut the overall humanitarian funding for fiscal 2020 — from the fiscal 2019 enacted levels of roughly $9.5 billion to just under $6 billion, which critics say would eviscerate dedicated refugee programs.

The State Department’s refugee activities have been a longtime target of senior White House adviser Stephen Miller.

“I’m not even sure I’m going to read the president’s State Department budget. It’s a total non-starter,” Connecticut Democrat Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, a member of the Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee, said last week. “I’m not sure [Sen.] Lindsey Graham is even going to read it. We all get it. He [Trump] hates the State Department. He hates humanitarian programs. . . . Congress doesn’t agree and so we’re going to go our own way.”

Watch: Why presidential budget requests are usually dead on arrival, explained

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Indeed, Graham, the cardinal of the State-Foreign Operations Committee, was equally dismissive of the White House proposal, as have been other Republicans.

“It will meet the same fate it did last time,” the South Carolina Republican told CQ, referring to how he disregarded the administration’s previous two budget requests to make deep cuts in foreign aid spending. “The State Department-150 account [the international affairs account], we will not follow their advice.”

The administration’s budget request proposes taking the vast majority of the budget from State’s Migration and Refugee Assistance account and merging it with two USAID accounts: Food for Peace and International Disaster Assistance, which provides humanitarian relief following natural disasters and man-made conflicts.

The new consolidated account would be called International Humanitarian Assistance and would “support all aspects of humanitarian assistance, including shelter, protection, emergency health and nutrition, the provision of safe drinking water, livelihoods supports, emergency food interventions, rehabilitation, disaster risk reduction, and transition to development assistance programs,” according to State’s fiscal 2020 congressional budget justification.

“The request restructures our overseas humanitarian programming to enable the United States to respond seamlessly to evolving humanitarian needs,″ said Eric Ueland, who heads State’s Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance, at a press briefing last week.

Additionally, the new IHA account would be used to support U.S. participation in a number of international humanitarian organizations such as the U.N. World Food Program and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Refugee concerns take center stage

Under the budget proposal, the State’s refugee assistance account, which is managed by the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, would be left with just $365 million, down from $3.4 billion in fiscal 2019 funding. The remaining money would be used for domestic refugee resettlement activities, which Miller has repeatedly targeted.

“PRM’s role will continue when it comes to significant refugee assistance work, as well as work they do in resettling migrants from Israel,″ Ueland said, adding that the changes would provide the Trump administration with a political and diplomatic strategy for responding to global refugee issues.

Those reassurances did not convince members of the humanitarian aid community.

“Beyond the fact that it is this mischievous pretext for slashing humanitarian assistance, you also kind of wantonly jettison enormous capability and expertise that exists in the department of State and that has served American interests for decades,” said Eric Schwartz, a former assistant secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration in the Obama administration.

The U.S. government’s expertise around international laws that protect refugees and the international organizations that assist them — such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the Red Cross — are under State, specifically within the PRM Bureau, according to Schwartz, now the president of Refugees International.

“If you remove all of the programming from PRM, you lose that expertise for no good reason,″ said Schwartz. “Under this ridiculous approach, PRM and its important influence on humanitarian policies and the State Department’s critical influence on humanitarian policies will wither away. That’s why it’s a stupid idea.”

Added Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, another Democratic member of the Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee: “Trying to address the president’s perceptions about the border and asylum and refugees by further retreating from our commitment to being a country that welcomes those with legitimate claims for asylum and refuge strikes me as going in exactly the wrong direction.”

While it’s a good idea to consolidate the humanitarian assistance accounts, it will likely come to nothing because of the high degree of Capitol Hill distrust toward the Trump administration when it comes to foreign aid, said Jeremy Konyndyk, who led USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance under the Obama administration.

“I think there is value in acknowledging that the current architecture for humanitarian assistance in the U.S. government is out-of-date,” he told CQ.

Konyndyk, now a senior policy fellow at the liberal Center for Global Development, in a December proposal called for applying the Goldwater-Nichols changes to U.S. humanitarian assistance operations. That 1986 law streamlined and unified the military chain of command so that strategic policy decisions came from Washington and tactical operation decisions were left to field commanders.

Konyndyk envisions something similar happening to how the U.S. foreign policy agencies make decisions on how, when and who receives food, medicine, shelter and other critical humanitarian assistance.

“I think there is the kernel of a good idea here [in the budget proposal] but its viability, I think, really depends on it not being seen as a backdoor attempt to cut the humanitarian aid budget and it not being seen as a backdoor attempt to gut U.S. leadership on refugee issues,” he said. “As it’s presently proposed, it would do both.”

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