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Is the Past a Prologue for International Family Planning Funding in a Trump Administration?

Analysis Craig Lasher, Senior Fellow

As the reality of the arrival of a Trump administration in January begins to set in, it’s instructive to look back at how funding for international family planning and reproductive health has fared when Republican presidents come into office.

Before the inauguration of President-elect Trump, a remaining question is how the fiscal year 2017 appropriations process will be resolved when Congress returns next week for a lame duck session. A continuing resolution (CR) is keeping most of the federal government operating through December 9th. The preservation of Republican majorities in the Senate and House is still being factored into tactical calculations on what type of legislative vehicle—omnibus or CR—and for what duration will maximize Republican political leverage during the waning days of the Obama presidency and whether it would be better to resolve now and start the next Congress with a clean slate. Not surprisingly, there are widely divergent opinions among congressional Republicans on how to answer that question.

On occasions of presidential transitions—particularly when shifts between presidents of opposite parties occur—there is a delay in the submission of the budget. While by law the budget is to be sent to Congress on the first Monday in February, the FY 2018 budget is not expected until several months later, perhaps not until April as the Office of Management and Budget—the budget arm of the executive branch—endeavors to incorporate the policy initiatives and promises made by the president-elect during the campaign.

While Mr. Trump has made no public pronouncements on international FP/RH funding on the campaign trail, he has certainly questioned the utility of foreign assistance in general and has a running mate in Mike Pence with a long history of hostility toward reproductive rights, both at home and abroad.

To understand how a Trump administration might proceed with his first budget request, one might examine the first request submitted by President George W. Bush for FY 2002. He proposed a bilateral family planning budget of $425 million (the same amount appropriated by Congress the prior year) and a ceiling on the U.S. contribution to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) of not more than $25 million. That same ceiling on the UNFPA contribution was enacted the prior year and $21.5 million was actually provided to UNFPA during President Bush’s first year in office. Unfortunately, the Bush administration later invoked the so-called Kemp-Kasten amendment to deny any funding to UNFPA, a cut-off that persisted for the remaining seven years of his term through FY 2008.

After reinstating the Global Gag Rule and withholding the entire U.S. contribution to UNFPA, bilateral funding recovered somewhat, hovering in the mid-$400 million range, due in large part, to family planning champions in Congress who sought to mitigate the damage caused by these harmful policies by appropriating larger amounts of funding. In doing so, Congress rejected declining presidential budget requests from President Bush each year.

Initially, the bilateral budget request levels held at $425 million due to the intervention of senior State Department officials, including Secretary Powell and his top aides. With the arrival of Condolezza Rice as Secretary of State, however, bilateral budget request levels consistently slipped, declining to $352 million, including up to $25 million for UNFPA, for FY 2009—the last Bush budget submitted. This request level represented a proposed cut of nearly $150 million from the prior-year congressional appropriation of nearly $500 million. Bolstered by the inauguration of President Obama and Democratic majorities in both houses, Congress ignored the Bush budget request and appropriated $545 million, nearly $200 million more than the amount he requested.

A more pessimistic historical footnote on how a new Republican administration might act in coming into office is President Reagan’s first two requests. In a long-forgotten episode for most, OMB proposed elimination of all funding for international FP/RH programs for FY 1983, not a full year into President Reagan’s first-term in December 1981.

At the time, this attack seemed to come largely without warning. The new Reagan team had already cut President Carter’s final FY 1982 request, from $346 million to $253 million, then to $235 million and finally to $211 million, the figure Congress appropriated in December 1981.

Whether the idea to zero out the entire family planning budget originated in OMB, with a certain senior State Department political appointee, or with anti-contraception activists in the White House, the attack was soon beaten back by career staff at State and USAID in the absence of high-level support in the administration. Eventually, $201 million went back into the FY 1983 budget request, later amended to $211 million and later still to $206 million. Congress appropriated $211 million, the same as in FY 1982.

If these two examples of the impact of presidential transitions on the international family planning budget request can teach us anything, it is the importance of committed, high-level internal advocates within the executive branch, bolstered by continuing support from congressional family planning champions.

If these two examples of the impact of presidential transitions on the international FP/RH budget request early in new Republican administrations can teach us anything, it is the importance of committed, high-level internal advocates within the executive branch—both political appointees and career officials, particularly at State and USAID—bolstered by continuing support from congressional family planning champions. With the consideration of political appointees for the incoming Trump administration just getting underway, we can only hope that some closet family planning supporters get through the personnel vetting process and are confirmed in influential positions in which they can help protect international FP/RH programs from the budget axe.

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