The Cable

Over State’s objections, Senate to move ahead on foreign-aid bill

In yet another sign that the administration and Capitol Hill aren’t exactly seeing eye to eye these days, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will mark up the Kerry-Lugar foreign aid reform bill Tuesday, moving the ball forward despite the State Department’s desire that Congress hold off until administration reviews are finished. The Kerry-Lugar bill, one ...

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In yet another sign that the administration and Capitol Hill aren’t exactly seeing eye to eye these days, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will mark up the Kerry-Lugar foreign aid reform bill Tuesday, moving the ball forward despite the State Department’s desire that Congress hold off until administration reviews are finished.

The Kerry-Lugar bill, one of several foreign-aid reform bills in play, is seen as a strong but relatively modest attempt to increase the power and stature of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It would, among other things, restore USAID’s policy-planning staff and create new oversight and accountability mechanisms to watch over foreign-assistance programs government-wide.

But the State Department leadership has been asking Kerry to slow-walk the bill, not wanting the legislation to preempt State’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), led by Deputy Secretary Jack Lew and Policy Planning chief Anne Marie Slaughter, and to a lesser degree the National Security Council’s President Study Directive (PSD) on foreign assistance, led by Gayle Smith.

Apparently, Lew asked Kerry specifically not to mark up the bill. Kerry may have been inclined to go along with Lew’s request, but was approached by Lugar, who threatened to pull his support for the bill if Kerry didn’t move it through the process. Kerry sided with Lugar and scheduled the markup.

“At the end of the day, the State Department tried to convince Kerry not to markup this legislation. Kerry was somewhat sympathetic but he was going to lose Lugar,” said one development expert close to the discussions. “It’s important for Kerry to maintain his arm-link with Lugar, so he pushed back.”

A committee staffer confirmed the substance of the account, and explained that the committee simply didn’t want to wait until the reviews were completed. The PSD is expected perhaps in January but the QDDR won’t be completed until summer or fall of 2010 (State has promised to release an interim report at some point).

“What’s clear is that [State] wants to wait until the QDDR is done, so in the meantime, is Congress supposed to just remain silent?” the committee staffer asked. “You just can’t wait that long to start reforming aid.”

Although the long-awaited nomination of Rajiv Shah to be USAID administrator didn’t factor into the committee’s decision to move the bill (committee staff say the timing was purely based on logistics), they do view his still-undecided role as a barometer of how much Congress will need to weigh in.

If Shah is not given the authority and power within the administration that the bill envisions, or if the reviews don’t give USAID the authority the Senate is seeking, Kerry and Lugar could then move the bill further along, over State’s objections.

“If they come out with recommendations that don’t include a policy mechanism or evaluations, then there would be added momentum to bring this bill to the floor,” the staffer said.

The committee plans to markup this bill, then move to confirm Shah, probably in early December.

“We’re not looking to take this thing and put into law tomorrow. But we are trying to lay out in an explicit way that this is what we think reform looks like,” a different committee staffer said. “State doesn’t always see it that way,” he added, referring to State’s pushback against the bill internally.

Meanwhile, overall confusion over where the administration reviews are going is creating a lot of uncertainty and unease both in Congress and in the development community. State Department officials talk about “elevating” USAID but also talk about “integrating” it into the State Department, words that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

The Kerry-Lugar idea of restoring USAID’s policy-planning staff, which was removed by the Bush administration, is one that lawmakers and development advocates see as crucial.

“An agency without a policy and strategic planning capacity is without true independence,” said Noam Unger, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We have an aid system that is weakened by fragmentation and our engagement of foreign countries suffers because of policy incoherence.”

Slaughter, in a speech Monday at the Center for American Progress, repeated the cryptic mantra that has the whole development world scratching their heads.

“The overall aim of the QDDR is to integrate and elevate development and diplomacy across the spectrum of the American foreign policy,” she said.

“You still need to integrate the power of development professionals, the ideas and the expertise, with the political clout and strategy and reach of diplomacy. That seems to me to be the perfect example of integrated power …  and that is what Secretary Clinton would like to see as one of her legacies.”

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 Twitter: @joshrogin

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