Report

Democrats Push Biden to Ramp Up Spending on Diplomacy and Aid

A $12 billion funding boost aims to reverse some of the Trump damage.

Antony Blinken speaks at his Senate confirmation hearing.
Antony Blinken speaks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing to become the U.S. secretary of state at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Jan. 19. Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

A group of lawmakers aim to drastically increase funding for diplomatic and foreign aid, an opening salvo from Democrats to correct the “militarization” of U.S. foreign policy in recent decades.

The lawmakers—Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Chris Van Hollen and Reps. Ami Bera and David Cicilline—are calling for a 20 percent increase in funding to the U.S. State Department and other foreign aid and development agencies, amounting to $12 billion. They say the increased funding will focus on addressing climate change, preventing future pandemics, and confronting China as it emerges as the United States’ global superpower rival.

The new plan comes as the Biden administration begins crafting its budget proposal to submit to Congress, in what is expected to be a stark shift of priorities from the Trump administration, which repeatedly tried to slash funding for diplomatic and foreign aid. Congress rebuffed those efforts on a bipartisan basis.

It also sends a not-so-subtle signal to the Biden White House that their allies in Congress want them to propose more money for diplomacy and development. “We’re putting this document out right now in the hopes of impacting the decisions that the administration makes,” Murphy told reporters in a phone briefing on Tuesday, shortly after the plan was announced. “I think there’s a lot of sympathetic voices there.”

But the plan could face hurdles in a narrowly divided Senate, where Republicans and Democrats each have 50 seats (and the vice president serves as a tie breaker). Even if they find a sympathetic ear in the White House, it’s unclear whether enough Republican lawmakers, many of whom are suddenly skeptical of a ballooning federal budget and growing deficits, will support the proposal in its entirety.

The lawmakers who crafted the plan said the United States will fall behind China, which has doubled its budget on diplomacy in the last decade, if Washington doesn’t increase funding for the State Department and foreign aid programs.

“[W]e have watched with growing concern as the Department of Defense budget has increased by hundreds of billions of dollars while funding for our other vital national security agencies has stagnated. This is bad policy; a gift wrapped present to Beijing, an open door invitation to the next virus, and a devastating blow to our efforts to fight climate change,” the lawmakers wrote in their plan, also released on Tuesday.

Their proposal calls for boosting the budgets of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from $56.6 billion to $68.7 billion, with large increases for bureaus that handle economic affairs, democracy, and human rights issues. The plan would increase spending for U.S.-funded media and efforts to counter global disinformation and propaganda operations, increasing the State Department’s Global Engagement Center’s funding from $55 million to $138 million and the U.S. Agency for Global Media’s funding (which oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, among other news organizations) from $807 million to $857 million.

The lawmakers also call for doubling the annual budget of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a smaller independent aid agency focused on economic development, from $905 million to $1.81 billion.

The initiative comes as progressive lawmakers are pressuring U.S. President Joe Biden to pare back defense spending. Rep. Mark Pocan, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and more than 50 other House members sent a letter to Biden on Tuesday urging him to reduce the Pentagon budget—an effort that is expected to face fierce pushback from Republicans. “We can’t build back better if the Pentagon’s budget is just as big as it was under Donald Trump,” Pocan said.

Murphy noted that the U.S. Defense Department’s budget is 13 times larger than the budget for the State Department and USAID. “It’s time to stop trying to solve nonmilitary problems with military tools and actually give agencies like the State Department and USAID the resources they need in the 21st century,” Murphy said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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