The Trump Administration's Fiscal Year 2019 budget request would boost defense spending to $686 billion, a seven percent increase, while slashing funding to the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to $39.3 billion, a twenty-four percent decrease. When examining these changes at face value, it is easy to see where the priorities of the Trump Administration lie; these budgets cuts further emphasize defense and military action in lieu of diplomacy, while directing another blow toward the already struggling State Department. Despite the proposed severity of the cuts to the State Department, this move by Trump should come as a shock to no one, as he has consistently prioritized defense initiatives and belittled diplomatic efforts.
One of the changes made by Trump in his FY19 budget request that has come under scrutiny are the changes in obligations of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. OCO is a separate pot of money that can be used by the State Department, including USAID, as well as the Department of Defense (DoD) to assist US foreign military operations. OCO is not included in the base budget, however, and is instead allocated separately by Congress. Despite this, OCO has traditionally accounted for one-third of the State Department and USAID’s funding. This was especially true in FY17, when Congress allocated $990 million in OCO funding for famine relief in Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, and South Sudan in response to the historic “Four Famines.” In his FY19 request, not only does President Trump shift more OCO towards DoD, but he also folds OCO into the base request. Therefore, the $39.3 billion request for the State Department and USAID is inclusive of OCO, which means that cuts proposed by Trump could be much more severe than they appear at first glance. Additionally, OCO is traditionally used for humanitarian assistance by the State Department and USAID, meaning that the shift of OCO towards DoD would limit the amount of emergency relief provided by the United States to Yemen.
In the broader scheme of Trump’s plans for FY19, this budget plan also shows a lack of recognition for any diplomatic tools excluding military use, therefore undermining US efforts to pursue peaceful and diplomatic solutions. This stance is taken in spite of the fact that it is the White House’s stated policy to push for a peaceful settlement in Yemen. Furthermore, Trump is cutting programs that have broad bipartisan support including development assistance, food aid, and human rights promotion. By eliminating development and humanitarian aid programs, Trump is disregarding the need for humanitarian and development interventions to ensure lasting stability in countries like Yemen.
While these cuts to the State Department and USAID appear bleak, optimism lies in the fact that it is unlikely that Congress will incorporate all of the budget changes proposed by Trump. Trump requested a similar level of budget cuts to the State Department last year, but they inevitably failed due to vehement opposition in Congress. This opposition was apparent during USAID Administrator Mark Green’s testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) in late March. Despite the fact that Administrator Green dutifully stood by Trump’s proposed budget cuts, HFAC noted that this undercut US-efforts to combat terrorism and health epidemics, and increase the likelihood of military deployments. While Administrator Green generally supported Trump’s plans, he explicitly stated that this budget severely limits the opportunities for USAID to implement programs, a sentiment that was shared by members of the HFAC. In late March, Congress passed a spending bill through September 30--the end of FY 2018--that largely froze levels of foreign spending at 2017 levels. Given the administration’s inability to convince Congress that its cuts are necessary, one can expect similar congressional intervention when the time to apportion funds arrives.