Trump’s State Department Cuts Draw Criticism From Both Sides

By Nancy Ognanovich

President Donald Trump’s plan to reduce State Department programs and funding for international financial institutions is still drawing fire from members of both parties, with appropriators sending strong signals that they won’t include the cuts in the fiscal year 2018 spending bills.

Former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) told both Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at back-to-back hearings June 14 that the deep cuts proposed for diplomatic and international development programs would erode the U.S. leadership role abroad and won’t gain traction in Congress.

Rogers raised questions at the State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee he now leads about Trump’s request for $1.5 billion for international programs, which represents a 16 percent cut from current funding. Reductions of that size to international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, coupled with a 30 percent cut at the State Department, “are not in our short- or long-term strategic interests, given the global turmoil confronting the United States and her allies,” Rogers told Mnuchin.

“While I support the president’s efforts to beef up our military budget— and we all do—the sweeping cuts to the State Department and our international assistance programs are deeply concerning,” Rogers said told Tillerson.

His comments were echoed by full Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who said lawmakers view diplomatic programs as critical to supporting U.S. military operations.

“Many of my colleagues are concerned about the magnitude in the cuts to the State Department, the USAID program, and that suggests America is stepping back from its engagement in the world,” Frelinghuysen told Tillerson. “I hope that’s not the case. I’m sure you’ll reassure us it isn’t.”

The back-to-back meetings come as the committee is ready to reveal its set of interim spending allocations on June 15, while waiting for either a budget resolution or a new budget deal to give them better spending allocations than they face under the Budget Control Act. The comments by Rogers and other Republicans make clear appropriators don’t plan to follow Trump’s budget as they write 12 spending bills this summer.

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), chairman of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, expressed no interest in Trump’s cuts and said he and other lawmakers instead are pressing for a budget deal that also could serve as a vehicle for a “clean” debt limit increase. Dent, who plans to discuss the matter at a budget planning session of the House Republican Conference, urged administration officials to back a plan to get both items done by the August recess.

“We ought to enter into a budget agreement and tie a debt ceiling [increase] to that and conclude that in July,” Dent said. “I suspect we’d get a lot of bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle.”

Russia, China May Step Into Gap

The two hearings capped a week when Tillerson heard criticism on both sides of Capitol Hill about the double digit cuts proposed to the State Department budget. Republicans and Democrats said the various cuts will undermine the role of the U.S. and create a void that will be filled by the leaders of Russia and China. Among those who have expressed opposition to the cuts is Rogers’s fellow Kentuckian Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who for years was chairman of the State-Foreign Ops Subcommittee at Senate Appropriations.

Defense Subcommittee Chairman Kay Granger (R-Texas) favors Trump’s proposed increases for the Pentagon but said she agrees with top military officers that the cuts to diplomatic programs are unwise. She also questioned the elimination of aid to key allies.

“How many go to Russia? How many go to China? There’s a cost there and it’s not a dollar cost,” Granger said.

Similar comments were made by House Appropriations Committee ranking member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who said a 35 percent cut to international financial institutions would undermine U.S. influence overseas.

“If this administration is focused on efficient spending of taxpayer dollars overseas, drastic cuts to institutions that maximize our resources, aid in the sustainability of development programs, and create new markets just don’t make sense,” Lowey told Mnuchin. “A diminished U.S. role at international financial institutions would provide an opportunity for other countries to fill the space, reducing our ability to influence the international development agenda and advance American values and national security priorities.”

Lawmakers cited prepared testimony from retired Admiral Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Jones, and many other top military leaders questioning the cuts and saying that not all foreign crises are solved on the battlefield.

But both Mnuchin and Tillerson told lawmakers that their departments had to absorb cuts in order for Trump’s budget to include the big increases he wanted for the Pentagon. Tillerson suggested the State Department was wrongly inflated due to what he said was eight years of increases during the Obama administration.

"[W]e had to make some very difficult decisions on cutting back things to fund additional contributions to the military, which the president thinks is very important, and also our desire to have a balanced budget,” Mnuchin said.

State `Redesign’ Also Questioned

Also drawing questions at the hearing on the State Department budget were the administration’s plans to “redesign” agency operations.

Rogers expressed doubts about the administration’s plans and said that with Tillerson’s constant travels, there needs to be a position created “at the highest level” to manage the operations at the State Department and oversee budget matters.

However, it appears that a top Republican Senate aide will soon assume that role. Trump recently announced his intent to nominate Eric Ueland, former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), to serve as undersecretary of state for management.

Ueland, who retains close ties to McConnell, currently serves as staff director to the Senate Budget Committee.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.