White House lifts pause on State Department, USAID spending

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., speaking at a news conference to discuss the introduction of election interference legislation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on June 27, 2019.


By KELLIE MEJDRICH | CQ-Roll Call (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 10, 2019

WASHINGTON — The White House has released certain funds appropriated for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development that had been temporarily frozen, a senior administration official said Friday.

The action comes after the Office of Management and Budget told those two agencies to cease spending for a range of programs that still have unobligated fiscal 2018 and 2019 balances, and would otherwise expire if not spent by Sept. 30.

The freeze took effect Aug. 3, and was to last until three business days after the agencies provided the OMB with an accounting of outstanding balances in 10 separate accounts, ranging from international peacekeeping operations to financing for foreign countries to purchase U.S. defense equipment and training.

“After receiving the requested information last night and having reviewed it, these funds are now available,” the administration official said.

The move comes after a flurry of congressional criticism of OMB’s funding freeze, after foreign aid advocates sounded the alarm that the temporary freeze may be a precursor to formally canceling the funding and making it unavailable for State and USAID to spend.

The White House still hasn’t ruled out “rescinding” a pot of money within the targeted accounts, which advocates say could be as much as $4 billion. A rescissions announcement would trigger a 45-day holding period where the funds would once again be suspended.

The problem is that the budget authority would lapse after Sept. 30 unless Congress was somehow able to block that outcome; currently lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Washington until Sept. 9. Foreign aid advocates and critics on Capitol Hill said the move could amount to an illegal “impoundment” of funds, as ordinarily rescissions have to be approved by Congress but in this case the money would be effectively canceled without giving lawmakers a say.

On Friday, a bipartisan rebuke to the White House came from House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on that committee, along with Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Senate committee’s top Democrat.

“These funds, which were appropriated by Congress and signed into law by the President following lengthy, bipartisan negotiations, are essential to promoting U.S. global leadership and protecting the security of the American people. We urge you to make them available for obligation without further delay,” lawmakers said in a letter to acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and acting OMB Director Russell Vought.

The top Democrats on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees weighed in with their own critique on Friday, though they were not joined by their Republican counterparts.

The temporary freeze affected about $55.2 billion that lawmakers originally allocated over the last two fiscal years, for a broad range of public health, peacekeeping, development and diplomacy programs now being scrubbed by the administration. The White House did not say how much money State and USAID reported was unobligated, or available for possible rescission.

The move came as Congress has already expressed concern the White House may try to take control of foreign affairs spending they see as an end-run around spending priorities outlined by Congress.

The House-passed fiscal 2020 State-Foreign Operations spending bill (HR 2740) contains a provision that would extend to 90 days the availability of expiring funds if lawmakers receive a rescission proposal less than two months before the end of the fiscal year and do not act on the proposal within that period.

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