The first round in the battle to write a federal budget, working off the Trump administration’s ruthless proposals announced in May, has ended in the House of Representatives appropriations committee. As feared by advocates for women, the poor, refugees, global health programs and even foreign language study, the Republican-led appropriations committee, which sets budget goals for a dozen government departments, was not charitable.
The Congressional budget, reflecting some of the most ideologically motivated demands of ultraconservative Republicans, is heavily weighted toward military spending. The House appropriations committee proposed $658 billion for the defense department, $18.4 billion more than the president had requested. As for cuts, a $461 million spending limit has been proposed for family planning and reproductive health funding — a loss of $146.5 million.
It would seem incredible that in any political climate other than the one created by Trump, elected representatives of the American people could be so callous, disparaging and contemptuous of the needs and rights of women in the 21st century.
When Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the top Democrat on the appropriations committee, and others tried to change or amend the bill, Representative Hal Rogers, a Republican of Kentucky, argued that to fund family planning and reproductive health could “end up hurting mothers and children.”
How’s that? Well, he said, it could mean diverting funds from immunization, malaria and nutrition programs, a Washington memo from Population Action International noted.
In a statement, the New York-based International Women’s Health Coalition said this magnitude of cuts would set back American assistance globally by a decade.
“While less harmful than the Trump Administration’s request to zero out the funding, if enacted it would seriously undermine US efforts to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights and reduce maternal mortality around the world,” the Coalition said. Coupled with these cuts is the complete defunding of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the largest global provider of family planning and maternal health programs.
Salvaged to a limited degree by the Congressional committee was Trump’s proposal for major cuts in financing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose work has a global following and impact. The appropriations committee added $1 billion more to the CDC budget, though apparently by moving funds from other initiatives.
The State Department and (civilian) operations bill agreed by the committee cut 17 percent of current funding for those functions of government, to $47.4 billion total. The CDC’s climate change program, economic development grants and the Labor Department’s international grants were eliminated, excerpt for relatively small sums budgeted to shut those programs.
The story of US budget proposals, however, still has a long way to run. If and when Republicans — with their comfortable margin of control in the House of Representatives — produce and approve their agreed budget package for 2018, their final legislative bill will go to the Senate, which could challenge some provisions and make changes. That would require “reconciliation” talks between the two houses of Congress. Only when there is full Congressional agreement would the budget go to the president for signing.
The process is predicted to be long and cumbersome and likely to get tangled in related debates over tax reform, which could be a significant hurdle. The deadline to get everything done is Sept. 30. A new budget year begins on Oct. 1. Failure to produce a budget on time would require the adoption of a “continuing resolution” to keep the government running on mostly current allocations. This has been the pattern for several years, after Republicans took control of Congress and blocked many of President Obama’s requests.
While negotiations — and some battles — go on, the Trump administration, led by an increasingly shrill Ambassador Nikki Haley in New York, continues to whittle away at UN programs, particularly in peacekeeping missions. The Haley camp is also holding fast to reducing American contributions to the UN’s peacekeeping budget to 25 percent, down from about 28 percent. The Trump administration leaves the impression that Secretary-General António Guterres is on their side.
For example, Guterres has not taken opportunities to strengthen the leadership of UN agencies. He has extended the term of Anthony Lake as executive director of Unicef. Lake, a former national security adviser to President Bill Clinton, has held the Unicef position since 2010, virtually invisible in an agency that thrives on strong public leadership.
The low-profile stance of important agency heads at the UN was a hallmark of Ban Ki-moon’s 10-year tenure as secretary-general, when once-powerful public figures were replaced by unobtrusive title holders like Helen Clark, a New Zealander, at the UN Development Program; and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa. Guterres has recently reappointed Mlambo-Ngcuka to another four-year term as executive director of UN Women.
Thought to be personally popular at the UN, Mlambo-Ngcuka is rarely seen or heard except at official functions, such as the opening session of the annual Commission on the Status of Women, when she gives a brief media appearance. Now more than ever at the UN, the organization needs a strong and vocal advocate for women. Mlambo-Ngcuka succeeded more visible women such as Michelle Bachelet, who is now the president of Chile; and earlier, Noeleen Heyzer of Singapore, who directed Unifem, the precursor to UN Women, with outspoken verve.
There is a plausible theory that because the Trump administration wants to end all US funding for Unicef — yes, Unicef — and UN Women, it would not make much sense for the secretary-general to start top-down changes in these agencies until their future is clear. European and other nations would certainly want to grab the Unicef job from the US, which has held the position since the agency’s founding. Guterres would not gain from antagonizing Haley and Trump by putting a strong feminist in UN Women, either.
Stephen Schlesinger, a leading historian of the founding of the UN and a contemporary commentator on its continuing story, analyzes Guterres’s relations with the US as calculated and cautious for good reason:
“Guterres seems to be taking the strategic position that, in his first year as secretary-general, he wants to low-key it with the unpredictable Trump Administration until he gets his footing,” Schlesinger wrote in an email. “He acquiesced on blocking the appointment of a Palestinian to be the UN’s special emissary to Libya because of the administration’s objections. He worked with Haley to cut back the peacekeeping budget by about $500 million. I believe he reappointed Lake and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka because he wanted to avoid controversies over their replacements. As he gains more confidence in his job, he may be more willing to exercise his moral and political authority to defy rather than placate the Trumpites on future issues.
“What does that say about Guterres? First, remember he started his life as a politician, not a technician, an unelected appointee or a bureaucrat,” Schlesinger wrote. “So he has the wiles of a person who has worked in the public arena. Second, he realizes that he needs to woo the Trump administration, given its threat to reduce so much US funding for the UN and its agencies, at least in its proposed budget. Third, he may believe that in the short run he can reduce any further damage inflicted on the UN by playing nice with Nikki Haley.
“However the danger is that his gambit will not work — and the Trumpites will roll over him,” Schlesinger said. “But the alternative, which is to get into an immediate showdown with the administration, also will probably not work. I think he is fundamentally a progressive figure facing an intransigent and deeply reactionary foe. Maybe he will simply try to muddle through his first year and hope for a more measured and less agitated second year.”
Other secretaries-general have learned, however, that a reputation for doing the bidding of the US, now led by a phenomenally unpopular president, can antagonize many UN members. It is always a gamble.
Like Americans and others who have been stunned by Trump’s militaristic approach to global issues, his blinkered vision and his apparent ignorance about how the world and the UN work, Guterres and his team may be watching the unfolding US budget process closely.
Experienced Washington hands say that the best hope before the funding battles end would be to find more friends of the UN in Congress than Republican leaders expect. That would mean legislators who would stand up for at least some of the work that the organization does. So far, the voices have been few.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.