As big-ticket items like Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, the debt ceiling, and the various parts of the annual budget overwhelm the news cycle, they’re hardly the only tax-funded spending sprees on the congressional docket. There’s also a bipartisan proposal to increase the investment in democracy abroad through USAID. It probably won’t have its moment on the floor this year. It might never see major headlines, even if it becomes law. But the big spending boost, called the Democracy in the 21st Century Act, would obligate American taxpayers for a much larger cut of their incomes to be sent overseas.
The Path to Passage
Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced Senate Bill 3317 Dec. 6, and it was read twice and referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations. The bill text, which isn’t yet on Congress.gov, is available through a press release by Sen. Coons’ office, along with a one-page explanation. Thus far, there are no other co-sponsors, but it’s early yet.
Could this bill actually become law, and when? The simplest answers are yes and probably next year. Foreign aid spent on promoting democracy around the globe is hardly a partisan issue, though the end result may well be. It likely has a good chance of passing, but there are certainly bigger fish to fry and only so much time left for cookin’. Defense spending, the debt ceiling, and Biden’s Build Back Better agenda are almost guaranteed to be addressed before this – and it’s looking like a safe bet even that list won’t be completed by Friday, Dec. 10, when Congress drops the curtain on 2021.
Lofty Goals and Price Tags
The stated goal of the bill is to “advance democracy and human rights abroad” by increasing related spending from around $2.42 billion to over $3 billion – about a 25% jump. This money would be available each year until spent from 2022 through 2026 – for a total price tag of $15 billion – to be spent how the Department of State and USAID see fit, including any new presidential initiatives that may come of the report required from the White House 120 days after the enactment of this bill. To streamline the process, there are also four new funds created:
- Fund to Defend Democracy Globally, which translates into $20 million each for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to “support democracy programs that bolster freedom of expression, election integrity, democratic technology use, and development assistance.”
- Fund to Combat Corruption and Kleptocracy – another $20 million for USAID to “support civil society, foreign governments, and the private sector in efforts to combat corruption.”
- Democracy Research and Development Fund, a final $15 million to USAID to “support research, development, and innovation within democratic programming, with an emphasis on technology and inter-department coordination and information sharing.”
Though only named once, the first item is, in fact, counted as two funds.
Going Public and Keeping Private
There are a few interesting changes to the foreign aid process, as well. The act enables data sharing between the Department of State, USAID, and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). It also makes it clear that the $3 billion a year is in addition to any other funding already appropriated for the same purpose – and it opens up the fund to donations as well. The goal here, of course, is to enable the agencies listed to deploy those dollars more quickly and effectively to either defend or build up democracy as the situation demands. While it doesn’t seem to have much effect on the amount of money Congress plans to take from the public purse, at least making donation an option is a step in the right direction: charity over taxation.
Something that could easily go missed by anyone only focusing on the dollar amounts is the fact that Section 4 declares no prior approval by the government of any foreign country is necessary for State and USAID to engage in democracy programs. On top of that, should the secretary of state and the administrator of USAID deem a government undemocratic or guilty of “gross violations of human rights,” they will seek to withhold the names of those working in-country for those programs.
The bill specifically names China and Russia as enemies of democracy that negatively influence less powerful countries around the world. Much of the money and energy from this bill is directed toward overcoming that influence.
Return on Investment
This does, however, raise the question of how effective U.S. dollars have been in this crusade so far. The list of countries that have transitioned to a more democratic form recently is quite short. Barbados just became a republic on Nov. 30. The island nation and former British colony is no longer under the queen’s authority, but as they’re only a week into the new government, it’s too soon to tell how that will turn out. The U.S. sent almost $41 million there over the last 20 years.
A little farther back we find South Sudan, which broke free of Sudan in 2011. The American government began spending money on this cause back in 2006, and it started “small” with a mere $213,778. It was up to $3.7 million the next year, then a jump to $45 million in 2010. Once the South Sudanese declared their independence, however, that annual commitment grew. The U.S. sent $148.5 million in 2011 and committed between $614 million and $926 million a year ever since. A grand total of $7.686 billion in U.S. tax dollars have been spent in South Sudan, a nation of just over 11 million people, so what do we or they have to show for it? Of their ten years free from Sudan, six were spent in civil war, costing the tiny nation a whopping 400,000 lives. Today, the people of South Sudan are left with a government that steals from public funds and responds to protests with police action and censorship.
In the last 20 years, the United States has obligated $853 billion around the world in foreign aid pulled directly from the American taxpayers. USAID was generally the biggest spender – though the Department of Defense did outspend the agency slightly for several years – and $67 billion of that was specifically for “Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.” In that same time, just six “democracies” emerged – though the definition of that term, as can be seen by the South Sudan example, may have a lot of wiggle room.
~ Read more from James Fite.