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Jon Stewart was wrong: Coburn is not holding up the Haiti relief money

More than $1 billion of aid to earthquake-torn Haiti still has not reached the island nation, but that’s not the fault of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) — despite the recent charge leveled against the conservative senator by the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. Rather, the complicated State Department-Congressional appropriations process is to blame for the delay. ...

More than $1 billion of aid to earthquake-torn Haiti still has not reached the island nation, but that's not the fault of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) -- despite the recent charge leveled against the conservative senator by the Daily Show's Jon Stewart. Rather, the complicated State Department-Congressional appropriations process is to blame for the delay.

On Sept. 30, Stewart took Coburn to task for his hold on the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act of 2010, a pending bill that would set five years' worth of authorizations (how Congress wants to see the money spent) for Haiti reconstruction and relief funding. Coburn wants to see Congress find savings in other parts of the State Department to pay for $500 million for Haiti next year, in fiscal 2011. Stewart's rant was based on this Sept. 28. AP article.

Referencing that, Stewart called Coburn an "international a**hole of mystery" and continued: "So for any Haitian who right now lives on top of a pile of rubble washing their clothes in their own urine bucket, while Sean Penn gives your kids cigarettes while regaling you with Fast Times at Ridgemont High anecdotes, hang in there. Cause we need to sort all this out so you won't have to fill out duplicate forms. You're welcome!"

More than $1 billion of aid to earthquake-torn Haiti still has not reached the island nation, but that’s not the fault of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) — despite the recent charge leveled against the conservative senator by the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. Rather, the complicated State Department-Congressional appropriations process is to blame for the delay.

On Sept. 30, Stewart took Coburn to task for his hold on the Haiti Empowerment, Assistance and Rebuilding Act of 2010, a pending bill that would set five years’ worth of authorizations (how Congress wants to see the money spent) for Haiti reconstruction and relief funding. Coburn wants to see Congress find savings in other parts of the State Department to pay for $500 million for Haiti next year, in fiscal 2011. Stewart’s rant was based on this Sept. 28. AP article.

Referencing that, Stewart called Coburn an “international a**hole of mystery” and continued: “So for any Haitian who right now lives on top of a pile of rubble washing their clothes in their own urine bucket, while Sean Penn gives your kids cigarettes while regaling you with Fast Times at Ridgemont High anecdotes, hang in there. Cause we need to sort all this out so you won’t have to fill out duplicate forms. You’re welcome!”

The problem is that Coburn’s hold is not responsible for delaying the $1.15 billion Congress already appropriated in late July to help Haiti. That bill, which is totally separate from the one Coburn is holding up, was the supplemental appropriations act signed by President Obama on July 29. Authorization bills, like the one that Coburn objects to, are useful for setting out Congressional direction on how money should be spend, but aren’t strictly necessary to the disbursement of the funds. The appropriations bills are the ones that actually spend the money.

Even the State Department acknowledges that Coburn is not responsible for the delay in this tranche of funds for Haiti.

“Senator Coburn’s hold is not related to the $1.15 billion pledge made by the administration in March,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable. He explained that the State Department and Congress are still working on how exactly to spend the money, totally apart from Coburn’s hold on the separate authorization bill.

State was given 45 days from July 29 to submit a “spend plan” for the Haiti money, after which Congress had two weeks to submit questions about its plan. Today, Coburn posted the State Department’s spending plan for Haiti, along with its transmittal letter, which shows that it was given to Congress Sept 20. That’s 52 days after the bill was signed, more than the 45 allowed — but still not bad for government work.

Now, State and the relevant congressional committees are finishing up their work on the spend plan and the State Department should start actually giving out the money soon, Crowley said.

“We continue to answer questions and address issues that members of Congress have raised, but we will soon be obligating those funds on the ground in high impact ways to help the people of Haiti build back better,” Crowley said.

He also pointed out that Congress had already put $300 million on the ground in Haiti while the process to release this $1.15 billion progressed.

Coburn also posted USAID’s fact sheet on humanitarian assistance to Haiti, which shows that over $1.1 billion has already been spent, although that was for emergency relief, not the longer term recovery and reconstruction assistance that is now being sought.

Overall, Crowley argues, “there has been no undue delay by the administration in releasing the $1.15 billion, given the notification requirements legislators included in the supplemental legislation.”

Regardless, whether you are a Haitian or a late-night comedian wondering why the money hasn’t flowed yet, in this instance, you should direct your questions to the State Department and Congress, not Tom Coburn.

“Coburn may be an a**hole when it comes to holding up bills, but he’s not the bad guy here,” said one Senate aide. “The a**hole here is the bureaucratic process… and Jon Stewart.”

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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