Congress must modernize foreign affairs programs for 21st century challenges

By Kurt Couchman

In 2003, while Apple was launching iTunes, the U.S. launched the Iraq invasion and the Department of Homeland Security. It’s also the last time that key State Department and foreign operations programs were authorized to be funded, although they continue as long as Congress keeps breaking its own rules and giving them money. This includes staff compensation and the operations of embassies and consular posts throughout the world, including diplomatic relations, visa processing, assistance to Americans abroad, and much more.

The U.S. Agency for International Development was last authorized in 1987. That year, Margaret Thatcher won a third election to be prime minister of Great Britain. Meanwhile, the current chair of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities celebrated her third birthday.

The Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund was last authorized in 1962, two years after The Beatles got together, but it continues to be funded.

Lapsed authorizations are reaching disturbing proportions. When the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations produced its annual spending bill last July, the committee report showed that 95 percent of proposed spending—now $57 billion—lacked an active authorization.

Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations seem to want to advance reauthorizations. Unfortunately, they haven’t made much headway yet. Several bills—now public laws—have begun chipping away at the backlog, but much more should be done.

On July 27, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee marked up and approved the Department of State Authorities Act, Fiscal Year 2018. The 90-page bill includes management reforms, statements of principle, and 15 pages on combating corruption abroad. It lacks, however, any authorization of appropriations, or indeed, anything hinting at controversy.

Revising and updating programs regularly is a welcome development, and the committees deserve credit for their efforts over the last few years. But the world has changed so dramatically in the last few decades that minor tweaks are insufficient. Major reforms are needed to confront 21st century challenges.

The State Department was the first federal department created under the Constitution on July 27, 1789, followed shortly by Treasury and War (now Defense). Thomas Jefferson was the first Secretary of State.

Diplomacy is a crucial role for the federal government. In 2013, then-CentCom Commander James Mattis (our current Secretary of Defense) told the Senate Armed Services Committee:

If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately. So I think it’s a cost benefit ratio. The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense and related activities ($599 billion) have been reauthorized every single year since 1962 through national defense authorization acts (NDAAs). It should be. So should other important functions.

America’s foreign policy is much more than military capabilities. A balanced strategy requires Congress to ensure that diplomacy, aid, trade, travel, and other programs are also well-suited for the modern world and our place in it. Without periodic updates, the authorities become outdated. Members of Congress lose familiarity with core tools for advancing Americans’ security, freedom, and prosperity.

Why this dysfunction?

One factor is the relative lack of member interest. Members want to get re-elected, and that requires votes and campaign contributions. Foreign assistance is one of the few areas that voters want to cut, and they think America spends far more on it than it really does, so diligently working to update those programs might not help much with voters. Most campaign contributions have little to do with advancing peace, prosperity, and human dignity around the world.

The congressional process also deserves blame. It takes a lot of time to advance legislation on the Senate floor unless it’s almost completely unobjectionable. That time is usually more politically beneficial to spend on domestic issues. Even in the House, passing a status quo reauthorization bill would be controversial.

Adding the reforms to modernize these programs—build on what works, wind down what doesn’t—would be more challenging. The difficulty is further increased by committee membership—at least among House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans—being substantially more conservative than House Republicans as a whole.

Even so, Congress might be able to bite the bullet and do its job if the programs would otherwise terminate without authorization. But they don’t. Every year these programs continue on autopilot—contrary to House and Senate rules—through appropriations legislation or continuing appropriations resolutions.

Whatever the answer is, foreign policy should be updated. Diplomacy, aid, trade, and other peaceful contacts are the predominant ways that Americans interact with other people throughout the world. Regular congressional attention would help advance a balanced foreign policy and ensure that diplomats and other foreign affairs professionals have the support—and oversight—they need to succeed.

Kurt Couchman is the vice president of public policy at Defense Priorities and previously served as a policy expert in congressional offices. Most recently, he was legislative director for a Republican member of the House of Representatives. Follow him on Twitter @KurtCouchman.

This piece was originally published by Stars and Stripes on September 1, 2017. Read more HERE