Advocacy in a Divided Congress

AFSA On the Hill


Congresses with a majorityparty divide between the chambers have historically been the least productive in history.

According to the Library of Congress, the 115th (2017-2018) and 114th (2015-2016) Congresses passed 428 and 329 bills into law, respectively. However, if you look to the last instance of a divided Congress— the 113th Congress (2013-2014)—it passed only 296 laws and the divided Congress before that just 283. The current 116th Congress, with its Democratic House majority and Republican Senate majority, is expected to be no different.

While you wouldn’t know it from the daily headlines, members of Congress do want to propose bipartisan legislation that can easily pass both chambers of Congress and be signed into law. Examples include bills that demonstrate its constitutional oversight and appropriations authority, bills that restore faith in Congress’ ability to do its job, and bills that give productive wins to members who want to highlight their political might.

The 116th Congress and the desires of its politically diverse members present the perfect opening for AFSA to demonstrate that our 2019 priorities for strengthening the Foreign Service appeal across partisan lines.

At the start of the new Congress, AFSA worked to solidify the gains made for a field-forward Foreign Service. Specifically, AFSA reminded lawmakers of the line item tied to sending FSOs abroad, Overseas Programs, in the final Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations package.

AFSA celebrated the increase of $84 million for this line item in the final 2019 appropriations package (enough to cover the overseas support costs of shifting nearly 300 mid-level FSO positions from Washington, D.C., to embassies and consulates overseas). Until this package was passed into law, it was particularly difficult for Congress to focus on discussions for future fiscal years. The partial government shutdown exacerbated the strain.

The focus this spring has turned to maintaining the congressional firewall against any proposed cuts to State/USAID and protecting the international affairs budget.

AFSA’s advocacy team made strides on individual pieces of legislation affecting the Foreign Service, including the Championing American Business Through Diplomacy Act. This bill, sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-Texas), draws attention to State’s role in creating an enabling environment for U.S. businesses abroad and documenting foreign economic competition.

The bill complements AFSA’s “Economic Diplomacy Works” initiative, and we will continue to work with congressional staff to mold this legislation into a bipartisan win that is in the best interest of the United States and the Foreign Service.

Meanwhile, focus this spring has turned to maintaining the congressional firewall against any proposed cuts to State/ USAID and protecting the international affairs budget. Remember that Congress was the key defender in preventing the administration’s proposed cuts of more than a third the past few years, even as the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act put limits on non-defense discretionary funding.

In the absence of a budget deal that protects non-defense discretionary funding, State and USAID are vulnerable. There will be many priorities fighting for a diminishing piece of the same funding pie. The fear is that a decrease in the nondefense discretionary cap will cascade into a severe cut to the 302(b) allocation for the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bills set by the appropriations committees.

Thus, AFSA needs to continue to make an argument that transcends party lines if we are to protect the international affairs budget, as we did successfully with the Economic Diplomacy Works initiative. This requires meeting with seasoned lawmakers, with those moving up the ranks in our congressional committees of jurisdiction, and with the freshmen lawmakers new to Capitol Hill.

AFSA seeks to strengthen a solid bipartisan majority in favor of a budget that does not undercut non-defense discretionary funding or completely gut non-defense Overseas Contingency Operations funding without an offsetting increase to base funding—a clear challenge in the divided Congress we currently face.

Kim Greenplate is Director of Congressional Advocacy at the American Foreign Service Association.