State Department’s new Middle East fund falls victim to Capitol Hill dysfunction

State Department’s new Middle East fund falls victim to Capitol Hill dysfunction

The State Department’s biggest new program in its fiscal 2013 budget was a $770 million new fund to help America’s diplomats and aid workers respond to the Arab Spring — but Congress didn’t fund it in the latest continuing resolution.

Called the Middle East incentive fund, the program was touted by senior State Department officials when the administration rolled out its budget in February. Though a small fraction of the State Department’s $51.6 billion budget proposal, the fund was meant to support emerging democracies in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, where the ongoing fallout of the 2011 uprisings has come into sharp focus this month.

"This is something that Secretary Clinton has really — and with the president — has focused principally on," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said in February when announcing the initiative. "The notion is we’re in a new world. The Arab Spring has come; we need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives. I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent because we’ll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill. We’ll be coming up with initiatives that we’ll then be discussing with the Hill."

In May, the House Appropriations Committee declined to support the new fund in its version of the appropriations bill, claiming that the administration had failed to provide enough detail about the new program. Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) came to the fund’s defense and put $1 billion in the Senate’s version for the fund.

But neither of those mark-ups were used in the continuing resolution (CR) that Congress passed in the wee hours of Saturday morning to keep the government running from October to March. The CR largely just continues authorities for existing programs, but there wasn’t room for a new fund of the size and scope envisioned by the State Department.

"That’s one of many many casualties of putting the budget on autopilot," Leahy spokesman David Carle told The Cable. "The six-month continuing resolution doesn’t reflect the enormous work this year by the Senate and House State-Foreign Ops panels to update the current FY12 appropriations for changing needs and conditions.  Senator Leahy has been highly critical of this robotic approach and its implications for U.S. security and foreign policy interests."

The consequence of not starting the new program, experts say, is that the United States will have reduced influence in emerging Middle East democracies and that those countries will have less support in their effort to build stable, moderate, and secular civil societies.

"This is Congress making the administration limp along in its response to the Arab Spring. It’s a missed opportunity," said Tamara Wittes, head of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for the region.

The lack of congressional support shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a policy statement by Congress because a true debate about the fund was never allowed to happen, she cautioned. Nevertheless, the next opportunity for the fund would come next March and a lot could happen in the region between now and then.

"It’s very difficult in an election season to vote for new commitments, but $700 million is not a lot in a foreign assistance budget that represents less than 1 percent of the budget," she said. "It gets to the broader challenge of justifying foreign assistance when you get Congress to get behind something so modest and so urgent."

The Middle East Partnership Initiative and USAID’s Office for Middle East Partnerships will continue to receive funding at the same levels as last year, equaling $35 million over 6 months for both programs.