So it turns out the “skinny budget” released by the White House is really just a press release—a sprinkling of numbers amidst a lot of assertion and characterization of the real budget that is yet to come. When it comes to foreign assistance, the skinny budget doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, with statements that are both confused and confusing.
The headline is clear enough: a 28 percent or $10 billion reduction in funding for US engagement in the world. And while much attention will be focused on the top-line of 28 percent cuts, the reality is the cuts would be even deeper. There would also be a 37.4 percent cut to the 150 Account’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. This would bring the total request for international programs to $39.1 billion, a reduction of $18.1 billion from the $57.2 billion enacted in FY17.
But read the talking points that fill out the two pages of this portion of the budget and you might think that, with a few exceptions, nothing much is changing. The United States will “retain” its status as top donor to the multilateral development banks; “maintain” current commitments under PEPFAR; and “fulfill” its pledge to GAVI. In other areas, any talk of cuts is masked by the language of reform: it “refocuses” on countries of strategic importance; “challenges” organizations to become more effective; and “improves efficiency” by eliminating duplication. And then in a few areas, big and small in budget terms, the language of upheaval is clear: educational and cultural exchange programs, climate programs, “small organizations” are all directly on the chopping block.
It’s worth focusing on these characterizations because the actual budget numbers may or may not deliver on some interpretations of the language. For example, what does a “path” to fulfilling the GAVI pledge actually mean? I suspect that points to an extended timeline for delivering the money, which is an annual cut by another name.
More generally, what is striking is the confused messaging of this document. Two weeks ago the White House highlighted cuts to international programs in comments to reporters in a pretty clear attempt to demonstrate that it would be putting “America first” in its first year budget. Yet, today’s skinny budget seems to want to have it both ways: we are cutting foreign assistance, but only in a few areas are we willing to say so unambiguously.
Let’s be clear. The $18.1 billion reduction overall is real and will have real and wide ranging impact in areas far beyond climate funding if Congress goes along. But it is telling that already the administration seems to feel the need to offer the appearance of continuity with long standing US leadership in global health, humanitarian assistance, and multilateral development.