Outgoing Top House Democrat Offers Parting Gift to US Foreign Policy

Congressman Howard Berman has had a distinguished career in the House of Representatives. He will leave Congress as the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee at the end of the term, having lost a tight race to a fellow Democrat in California.

Congressman Berman, though, is leaving a legacy.

On Capitol Hill today, Berman released a sweeping update to the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act that if passed would fundamentally alter how the United States approaches foreign aid. The bill is called the Global Partnerships Act. It would be the first wholescale update of American foreign assistance since the Kennedy era.

“This legislation sets forth a comprehensive framework for advancing American interests by working in cooperation with other countries to make our world a better, safer place,” said Berman in a statement. “The most fundamental change that this bill makes is transforming the donor – recipient relationship to one of equal partners working toward mutually agreed upon and beneficial goals.”

The bill is at least four years in the making. And it is lengthy–nearly 1000 pages long — but it is an update that is long overdue. “Our overriding concern is no longer the international communist conspiracy,” says Berman.

Perhaps the most ambitious part of the act is its call for the formation of a grand strategy for development to provide guidance and rationale for new or existing foreign aid programs. “There is no comprehensive strategy on what we want to accomplish with our foreign assistance program,” says George Ingram, co-chair of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We are doing isolated and unconnected things, the sum of which does not add up to the whole of its parts.”

Part of the reason for this is that American aid programs tend to be siloed, at least compared to other western countries that have dedicated ministries for global development. The USA has USAID, of course, but it is a subsidiary of the State Department; other government agencies —  from the Defense Department to White House programs like PEPfAR  — are also heavily involved in foreign assistance. The result is many competing (or sometimes duplicative) development programs as opposed to a unified American development strategy.

The disjointed nature of American development programs is partly Congresses’ fault. American development programs tend to get laden with Congressional earmarks, so by the a new program makes it through Congress it couple be doing more to serve various domestic constituencies than be part of a grand strategy.

The Global Partnership Act aspires to provide some coherence to American development programs. It calls on the White House and Congress to work together to craft a singular development strategy from which individual programs can find guidance and rationale.

They key question is can something like this make it through Congress, which is predisposed to earmarking legislation like this? Berman sees hope. “PEPfAR is a good example in which both sides held back because they wanted to get the program going to stop aids and save lives,” he said. Adding, “People stepped in to keep us from implementing our worst instincts.”

Passing the Global Partnerships Act will be a long slog. Its prospects may even be a bit dimmer because Berman is leaving and so is one of its key supporters on the Senate side, Republican Senator Richard Lugar. Still there is no doubting that an update to the Foreign Assistance Act is sorely needed.

“We are in the midst of an immense period of change in U.S. foreign policy,” says George Ingram. “Civilian tools like development are taking on increased importance in places like the Middle East, where our military power gives us less leverage than in the past. We need a strong and modern legislative foundation for our development programs, so that we can get better results in terms of lives saved and improved, while also increasing coordination and improving accountability.”