Framing the Case for Diplomacy

AFSA On the Hill


When AFSA discusses funding for core diplomatic capability with members of Congress, most initially find it hard to define, its relatively small money streams overshadowed by billions of dollars in foreign aid and policy programs in the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations bill.

When they receive the administration’s budget request, members of Congress see a wish list. Though equipped with the “power of the purse” to authorize, conduct oversight and appropriate, and to freely support or reject specific federal funding initiatives, lawmakers are often hamstrung by the sheer volume of funding priorities.

As a result, many on the Hill have come to rely on AFSA to explain what diplomats do and why it matters— to help them understand and justify the need for core diplomatic capability funding.

While it feels like we have just wrapped up Fiscal Year 2019 appropriations discussions on the Hill, Congress is already in the thick of its work on the next fiscal year’s funding. The administration’s FY2020 budget request called for a 24 percent cut to the international affairs budget, including an 8 percent cut to the State Department’s ongoing operations and a 7 percent cut to USAID’s ongoing operations.

For the past few years Congress has been a firewall in preventing similar large cuts from becoming law, and AFSA continues to advocate against such proposed cuts with our staunchest Capitol Hill defenders and those on the committees of jurisdiction. While the cut proposals haven’t changed much, neither has our robust, bipartisan congressional support for strong funding for diplomacy.

When we take a closer look at the FY2020 budget request, it is clear the main proposed State/USAID cuts stem largely from the elimination of non-defense Overseas Contingency Operations funding, which has historically made up about one-fifth of the international affairs budget. Remember that OCO funds are undefined but intended for American operations overseas and have largely replaced supplemental funds since the 9/11 attacks.

With non-defense OCO funding at $8 billion in FY2019, the proposed elimination of this funding category in FY2020 would be the single sharpest blow in years to the international affairs budget, likely trickling down directly to cuts in core diplomatic capability funding. Thus, AFSA’s budgetary advocacy work has centered around the need to maintain non-defense OCO funding or replace the amount cut in non-defense OCO with enduring funds (base) for State/USAID.

AFSA has incorporated two bipartisan themes on what diplomats do into its advocacy work to defend core diplomatic capability spending: (1) keeping Americans safe at home; and, (2) keeping America prosperous by enabling our businesses to compete and thrive overseas.

To address the first theme, we have shared stories of U.S. diplomats using our embassies as platforms for servicing agreements that enable counterterrorism cooperation, such as passenger name record sharing for air travel. To address the second, we’ve discussed the ways in which diplomats help American businesses compete on a level playing field, molding the local environment for the better and reminding businesspeople at our posts overseas why they prefer to do business with the United States.

Thanks to The Foreign Service Journal’s January-February 2019 edition on economic diplomacy, AFSA has plenty of firsthand stories that exemplify these themes.

As AFSA ties the work of our diplomats back to its effect on an individual congressional district or state, members of Congress are willing to add spending for diplomacy to their district-specific agendas, as well as their Washington priorities.

Framing diplomacy in relation to congressional members’ agendas while centering our arguments on the bipartisan themes of safety and prosperity has successfully helped ward off cuts in recent years. We aim to do it again in FY2020.

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