Decision to cut Northern Triangle aid cannot be “pen and phone” decision

The Trump Administration is looking to cut foreign aid to three Latin American countries due to President Donald Trump’s belief they are setting up the migrant caravans headed to the U.S. The State Department announced Saturday it would not send cash to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Via CNN (emphasis mine).

At the Secretary’s instruction, we are carrying out the President’s direction and ending FY 2017 and FY 2018 foreign assistance programs for the Northern Triangle. We will be engaging Congress as part of this process.

The big question is, obviously, “What’s the definition of ‘engaging Congress’?” because the meaning tends to vary from one administration to another. Thomas Jefferson’s inclination was to ask Congress for permission before directing his administration, while Barack Obama’s interpretation was mostly telling Congress he was doing something – regardless of whether they liked it or not. His so-called “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone” declaration in 2014 caused many a Republican and conservative to raise hell decrying the move as almost monarchial, and completely unconstitutional. Trump has shown a similar inclination depending on the issue – something which Republicans are strangely silent about, while Democrats are now the ones complaining about a potential monarchy. Hypocrisy thy names art Republicans and Democrats.

The budget appropriation itself is a little confusing. Congress does determine how much USAID money is given to other countries. However, the Northern Triangle appears to have a bit of a carve-out, giving the State Department more power to decide if and when the cash is given (emphasis mine).

(5) PERIODIC REVIEW AND REPORT.—

(A) PERIODIC REVIEW AND SUSPENSION OF ASSISTANCE.—The Secretary of State shall periodically review the progress of each of the central governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in meeting the requirements of paragraphs (3)(A) and (3)(B): Provided, That if the Secretary determines that sufficient progress has not been made by a central government, the Secretary shall suspend, in whole or in part, assistance for such government for programs supporting such requirement, and shall notify the appropriate congressional committees in writing of such action: Provided further, That the Secretary may resume funding for such programs only after the Secretary certifies to such committees that corrective measures have been taken.

The problem with the recent directive by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is it appears they want a blanket cut – instead of targeting the programs State Department has been given the power to review. The State Department would also have to tell Congress it has conducted a review of the aid (something we don’t know has happened) before any cuts happen. Which brings us back to the question of what the definition of “congressional engagement” means to the administration. However, it would be a mistake to use the “pen and phone” policy as the method to deliver this new policy. There are rules which need to be followed, which means Congress should hold a vote on the issue.

What happens if Congress fails to hold a vote or passes legislation Trump decides to veto? The administration would have to follow the current law which states certain funding can be cut, but not all of it. Trump could try to do executive action on the issue, but it would raise even more questions about separation – not to mention delegation – of powers. This entire fight wouldn’t be happening if Congress hadn’t decided to give the executive so much control when it comes to certain functions of government. It also wouldn’t be happened if the U.S. hadn’t decided to use the power of the purse to bribe other nations. The failure of elected leaders to follow the rules is why we’re in this mess.

The decision to cut foreign aid to the Northern Triangle (and all other countries) is correct because the United States shouldn’t be bribing them to bend to our political will. We also don’t exactly know how the countries use the money – despite claims of the contrary from USAID. Propping up bad governments does nothing to actually help the migrants looking to come to the U.S. It’s why the country needs to get out of the business of foreign aid. However, Congress and the presidency need to follow the rules set in the Constitution. More importantly, it means people need to hold their elected officials accountable when they deviate from their claimed love of said Constitution.

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