Berman Hopes Obama Speech at U.N. Will Build Momentum for Aid Revamp

Sept. 21, 2010 – 8:03 p.m.

By Emily Cadei, CQ Staff

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard L. Berman and his staff have spent more than a year trying to lay the foundation for an overhaul of U.S. foreign aid, but their efforts have been slowed by the Obama administration’s lengthy reviews of the federal government’s international development strategy, the California Democrat said Tuesday.

With the president and key administration officials set to weigh in publicly over the next week on how to modernize the foreign aid system, advocates on the Hill and in the development community hope to gain momentum for a legislative overhaul that would move in the 112th Congress next year.

“I don’t have the ability to make foreign assistance reform happen myself,” Berman said Tuesday at a forum hosted by the Society for International Development- Washington. “We have to have buy-in from both parties, both houses and, most especially, the executive branch. This is not something that’s done over their opposition.”

President Obama is expected to outline his presidential directive on international development Wednesday at the United Nations as part of the U.N.’s summit on the Millennium Development Goals. Last week, the administration released an updated strategy for reaching those eight goals, which were established by the global community in 2000.

Berman pointed to Obama’s speech as a sign that the administration was ready to engage on the substantive policy issues his bill is trying to tackle. The State Department has solicited internal feedback on a partial draft of the legislation, known as the Global Partnerships Act of 2010, that was circulated this summer, but has not yet provided written feedback to the committee.

Berman has said that he would like to introduce the bill either by the end of this year or early next year. On Tuesday he confirmed that “nothing is going to happen this year in terms of movement of this legislation.”

“The hard work is only just beginning,” he added.

George Ingram, co-chairman of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, a coalition of development groups that supports the overhaul, said he expects the president’s speech to advance the ball on foreign aid, as will appearances by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), at a development conference in Washington next week.

“By definition,” Ingram said, this “brings to closure this policy formation time.”

“We’re moving . . . to action now. The administration will no longer have the excuse to Berman that we’ve got to get our act together,” he said.

Others are less optimistic: “Just another speech, or . . .” was the title of a blog post on Obama’s U.N. appearance written by Porter McConnell, a policy adviser at Oxfam America.

Little Detail Expected

Overall, development advocates do not expect the president to get into much detail on implementation of the new development policy, nor on the touchy subject of the long-running bureaucratic turf battles between the State Department and USAID over aid.

At Tuesday’s forum, attended by development professionals, Berman sought to dampen considerable grumbling about the State Department’s role in the review process and its desire to maintain control over foreign aid policy.

“I think you’re a little too cynical regarding the administration and the State Department,” he told audience members. “To the extent the State Department has a resistance to . . . my vision of USAID as a development leader of the U.S. government, I do believe a big part of that is because of the secretary’s personal commitment to development.”

Ingram, a former principal deputy assistant administrator at USAID, expressed hope that the administration would begin to address those sticking points in the coming days, or that at least officials will give some “insight of how those are being resolved.”

State Department Review

The State Department is expected to address many of the same bureaucratic questions in its Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which is anticipated in early October.

One senior congressional aide said it would be that review, rather than the events over the next week, that will get the policy discussion moving forward in earnest. “I think what will really break the ice here will be the QDDR, when that’s done,” said the aide, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the legislative debate.

The administration’s slow-moving review process, however, means it will have to deal with a more skeptical House as it seeks to advance its development agenda. Berman maintained Tuesday that foreign aid should be a nonpartisan issue, but acknowledged that “regardless of what happens in November, we’re going to need to build a stronger support for reform on the other side of the aisle.”

Ingram said his coalition has always focused on building a bipartisan consensus on the aid overhaul, which he also called nonpartisan by nature. “I see no reason why we can’t keep it that way,” he said.

However, he continued, the coalition has not gotten “a lot of feedback” from Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who could become the panel’s chairwoman if the GOP wins the House in the November elections.

A version of this article appeared in the Sept. 22, 2010, print issue of CQ Today

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