Foreign aid funds suspended for review

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The Trump administration has temporarily frozen and ordered a review of several key foreign aid funds that Congress has already approved, in a move that critics say could lead to another attempt to cut foreign aid.

The Office of Management and Budget sent a letter to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development on Saturday, notifying them of the action, which took effect one minute before midnight that day.

The OMB has asked the agencies for a review of foreign aid projects that have not yet been funded. Michael P. Duffey, associate director of national security programs at the OMB, wrote that no more money can be drawn from those funds until three days after the OMB receives the numbers, a process that could take days. , even weeks.

The letter, seen by The Washington Post, lists eight areas that cover a variety of assistance: international organizations; peacekeeping operations and activities; international drug control and law enforcement; Development Assistance; support for Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia; economic support funding; foreign military funding programs; and global health programs.

An administration official said the funds targeted for review exceeded the budget limits proposed by President Trump. They include big-ticket items like contributions to the United Nations and smaller items like solar panels in the Caribbean, schools in Uzbekistan and soccer programs in Central America.

Traditionally, a significant portion of foreign aid funding is committed toward the end of a fiscal year, which ends on September 30. But this year, the pot is bigger, in part because the administration cut aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and for the Palestinians.

According to people familiar with the process, the named funds could be as little as $2 billion and as high as $4 billion.

The State Department and USAID declined to comment, referring questions to the OMB.

“It is the responsibility of all federal agencies to properly use funds provided by Congress,” said OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel. “In an effort to ensure accountability, OMB has requested the current status of several foreign assistance accounts to identify the amount of funding that is uncommitted. On behalf of U.S. taxpayers, OMB has the obligation to ensure that their money is used wisely.

Trump has offered deep foreign aid cuts in all of his budget requests, but Congress has restored funding.

Last year, the OMB asked the State Department and USAID to provide a similar tally of uncommitted projects just six weeks before the end of the budget year. He said money for projects deemed “unnecessary” – potentially up to $3 billion – could be returned to the Treasury, a process known as termination.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opposed the cancellation championed by OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, and Congress opposed what he saw as a backdoor attempt to circumvent his spending power , so the administration abandoned the proposal. The Government Accountability Office, in a decision last December, dismissed the idea of ​​an attempted cancellation so late in the budget year, saying there must be enough time for a “prudent obligation” that could take weeks or even months. This year, Pompeo was in Australia when the letter was sent and Congress was about to begin a recess.

No decision has been made and the information requested from the agencies is for review purposes only. But the memory of the failed attempt to cut foreign aid last year has led some in the wider foreign aid community to fear that Mulvaney, who remains head of the OMB and is the Acting White House Chief of Staff, try again.

“He tried time and time again to smack the tiniest but most impactful part of the budget with a hammer,” said Liz Schrayer, president of the US Global Leadership Coalition, a network of businesses and organizations advocating for international development. “He continues to lose, because Congress has seen in a bipartisan fashion that these cuts are reckless and that these funds are in America’s security interest. I think we will see that again.

A senior Democratic official said it appears the administration is preparing to circumvent Congress with a termination package and can expect a fight.

“Regardless of what the Trump administration may wish, Congress still has the power of the purse and we appropriated these funds because they are necessary to protect our interests and national security,” the aide said, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity. discuss plans under consideration. “We are in contact with the State Department and are demanding answers. This scheme would set a precedent for this administration and all future administrations to ignore spending bills and eliminate spending obligations by jamming Congress with year-end termination packages.

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