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House foreign aid cardinal sanguine on fiscal 2024 funding

Aid advocates downplay threat of big cuts as House GOP looks to trim spending

Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., left, and Tom Cole, R-Okla., talk during a House Republican Steering Committee meeting on Jan. 11.
Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., left, and Tom Cole, R-Okla., talk during a House Republican Steering Committee meeting on Jan. 11. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The new head of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees foreign aid has a sanguine prediction about what a push by other Republicans to cut federal spending might mean for State-Foreign Operations funding levels next fiscal year.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has said he wants to see fiscal 2024 spending reduced to fiscal 2022 levels but has been vague on how to accomplish that goal. National security hawks, including members of his own party, have already said they would reject any proposed cuts to the military’s budget.

That dynamic has made foreign aid advocates nervous that far-right Republicans will renew calls made during the Trump administration to pass deep cuts to foreign aid spending, which despite popular belief among some conservatives, only amounts to less than 1 percent of federal spending.

“I’m a strong believer that everywhere, in every place, we can find savings,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., the foreign aid subcommittee’s new cardinal — as Appropriations subcommittee chairmen are often called — said in an interview. “We have to sharpen our pencils and just do a very thorough job on two things. First place is to make sure that where the money is being spent is a priority. And second place, even in priority areas, that that money is being well-spent.”

Nevertheless, Diaz-Balart, who was promoted to lead State-Foreign Operations after his predecessor, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., was term-limited out of the position, signaled deep skepticism about just how much savings can be found in the State-Foreign Operations account to accomplish the broader goal of far-right House Republicans of reducing federal spending by $131 billion. A cut that deep would shrink base discretionary spending down to fiscal 2022 levels compared to fiscal 2023 levels.

In the fiscal 2023 bipartisan omnibus spending deal, Congress provided $59.7 billion in enduring funding for foreign aid and diplomacy programs, a $3.6 billion boost or roughly 6 percent increase from fiscal 2022.

Given that defense accounts for some 50 percent of discretionary federal spending, if the military is exempt from any proposed fiscal 2024 cuts, other programs under the purview of congressional appropriators, like homeland security and veterans care, could be looking at budget reductions of approximately 20 percent.

“Can you actually go to the [fiscal] 2022 level on discretionary and get defense to the level that we all know it needs to be,” the 11-term lawmaker from Miami asked rhetorically.

Diaz-Balart noted the relatively small size of the State-Foreign Operations account means concentrating any federal spending cuts overwhelmingly in that area would not be very helpful to the goal of reaching fiscal 2022 levels. “I think that is highly unlikely. There’s just not enough money.”

Still, the senior appropriator said he was serious about scrutinizing funding for the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other related aid programs to find cost savings and efficiencies.

“I’m just starting,” he said. “My intention is to scrub every program, every agency, every area to make sure that we are spending the money where it needs to be spent, and that we are spending it as efficiently as possible.”

The foreign aid community has welcomed the news of Diaz-Balart’s elevation to foreign aid cardinal.

“We really do look forward to working with Chairman Diaz-Balart. He’s a good partner to work with, he understands the issues, his people are good,” said Lisa Peña, director of policy, budget and appropriations for foreign aid advocacy organization InterAction.

Still, organizations like hers are concerned there is so much focus on cutting federal spending at a time when global needs for U.S. foreign aid are only increasing due to the ongoing public health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, drought, flooding, multiple refugee crises and the Ukraine war.

“It’s worrying because the needs in foreign assistance haven’t gone anywhere,” said Peña. “Not only do funding levels need to continue, they need to be increased.”

Diaz-Balart said under his watch there will be no foreign aid sacred cows. Asked to name any programs he thinks are ripe for reductions, he would only name funding for the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“What’s the role of the Human Rights Council? To pursue and to promote human rights, yet they have among the world’s worst human rights abusers [on the council],” the Florida Republican said. “It would be funny if for the fact it weren’t so dangerous and again that we’re spending so much money on that.”

Additionally, the chairman said he would look unfavorably on any push to return to the practice popular during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq of using supplemental appropriations — then known as Overseas Contingency Operations measures — to include funding for programs that otherwise would be counted under baseline funding.

“If you’re going to go the route of emergency spending, whether it’s supplemental-related, it needs to be really for emergencies,” Diaz-Balart said, adding he would distinguish between proposals to provide emergency spending for unanticipated humanitarian crises versus proposals to use supplemental appropriations to provide funding for long-term humanitarian needs.

While it remains unclear what strategy House Republicans will pursue to achieve spending cuts — including whether they intend to hold fast to the goal of reducing total spending to fiscal 2022 levels, and if such cuts are to be equally applied to all parts of the discretionary budget — Peña said she feels some relief about the fiscal 2024 outlook.

“One of the things that makes me feel better is that State-Foreign Ops doesn’t go first, we’re never first. Someone else will take the tip of the spear and we can watch how that plays out,” she said.

“For as much sturm and drang is coming out of the House, we still have the Senate,” Peña added, noting that incoming Senate Appropriations ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, has been a foreign aid “ally on a lot of things.”

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