Pompeo Grilled on Cuts to State Department Budget

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on budget Wednesday in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The threat of deep cuts at the State Department had Republicans and Democrats fuming Wednesday as they met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the 2020 budget.

“To call the budget inadequate is being very kind,” Representative Lois Frankel, D-Fla., told Pompeo this morning. “I’m just going to say it: it’s embarrassing and dangerous.”

The Trump administration has proposed cutting the budgets for the State Department and the humanitarian U.S. Agency for International Development by roughly $11 billion from last year. This brings the total purse for the department to $40 billion.

While Pompeo defended the cuts, saying that the new budget would still allow for “fully funded” diplomatic and humanitarian aid programs, Representative Hal Rogers was not convinced.

“If we accept cuts of this magnitude, it would make our nation less safe,” said Rogers, a Kentucky Republican. “In particular, deep reductions are proposed to priorities like security assistance, global health and democracy protection. Those programs demonstrate the character of our country. This [budget] approach is detached from reality.”

Emphasizing the enormous tasks facing the State Department, Rogers pointed to the increased displacement of people around the world, growing international instability and rising political tensions. He called $40 billion “woefully inadequate” to address the fallout from each issue.

It “simply won’t get the job done,” he said.

For the past three years, the Trump administration has called for drastic cuts to the State Department budget, and each year Congress has ignored the requests and funded most targeted programs anyway.

“I’m astonished that three years into his administration, the president still does not appreciate the merits of sustained investments in diplomacy and development,” said Representative Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.

Defending the cuts and the White House, however, Pompeo said U.S. diplomatic policy will remain anchored in the administration’s general approach to statecraft, even as “lively debate” persists about how to fund programs that assist women, refugees and children.

“This administration is trying to get others to step up and share the burden,” Pompeo said. “We think that’s important. Even leadership at the U.N. acknowledges there has been a historic imbalance and our efforts continue.”

While the overall 2020 budget faces cuts, the amount requested to counter aggression from China, North Korea and Russia has doubled from last year. The State Department now wants $661 million to tackle issues in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia.

The budget also requests a transfer of up to $500 million for the “democratic transition” of power in Venezuela.

A $100 million request for Ivanka Trump’s pet project, the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative, is also included in the 2020 budget. The initiative is reportedly aimed at helping 50 million women in the developing world over the next six years by providing access to job training and financial support.

 “I think we can agree,” Frankel said. “When women succeed, the world succeeds. So when women and girls are better educated, healthier and free from violence, not only are there families better off but we find their communities and countries are more prosperous and secure.”

“We do agree,” Pompeo said.

But when lawmakers pressed Pompeo for specifics on the women’s program, he had no information to offer and instead promised to follow up with the committee. A representative for Ivanka Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

On paper, Frankel told the secretary, investing $100 million sounds helpful. She also said, however, that the administration’s broader policies toward women around the world undercuts most of the assistance the initiative could offer.

The Trump administration slashed family planning programs by 50 percent, and it eliminated assistance to the U.N. Population Fund, which works to end genital mutilation, child marriage and provides reproductive health services.

The State Department also erased its reporting on reproductive rights from its annual human rights report this month, and it has pushed to remove basic information about sexual and reproductive health care by expanding the global gag rule, a Regan-era U.S. mandate that requires foreign organizations to vow that they won’t perform or promote abortion if they wish to continue receiving U.S. funding for family planning programs.

“I’m telling you, your administration is abortion-obsessed,” Frankel said. “You’re so obsessed with it, that the side effects are devastating the health of women around the world.”

Members of Congress also warned that expanding the global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy, hurts more than just reproductive services: Those services are intimately tied to programs offering assistance that tamps down HIV, malaria and other infectious diseases.

“Why would we pull back now and reduce these contributions when every report that we have shows that if we pull back, infection rates will increase. How are we going to succeed?” Said Representative Barbara Lee, D-Calif. “We haven’t seen any plan that shows how to get this epidemic under control.”

The 2020 budget proposes aid cuts to key partners in Africa where HIV and AIDS runs rampant: Ghana’s funding will see a 56 percent decrease, Ethiopia at 33 percent, the South Sudan by 44 percent, South Africa by 71 percent and Mozambique – which was just devastated by a massive cyclone – by 43 percent.

“Given these cuts it’s difficult to believe the administration’s strategy towards Africa is sound,” Lee said, “and it mostly demonstrates that the president meant what he said when he called certain nations ‘s-hole’ countries.”

“I am deeply aware of the department’s Africa strategy,” Pompeo said. “But we are tasked with keeping America secure and safe. You have to ask your partners to step up and ask bilateral recipients of this aid to step up and demonstrate that they’re using our dollars as intended.”

The budget request does, however, allocate $3.3 billion in spending for foreign aid to Israel and $1.3 billion for Egypt, a U.S. ally.

The outlook for the budget is bleak. Following Wednesday’s hearing, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel of New York pronounced the proposal “dead on arrival.”

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