U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has ordered two federal agencies to freeze billions of dollars’ worth of congressionally approved funding for foreign aid, pending the agencies' review.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) ordered the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to account for "unobligated resources" of foreign aid and to stop spending funds that have not yet been officially designated for certain purposes.
OMB identified 10 areas to be subjected to the freeze, including international health, narcotics and peacekeeping initiatives, and development assistance.
Critics of the order, which was delivered in a letter to the agencies last weekend, estimate the move will prevent the agencies from distributing $2 billion to $4 billion in aid.
The funds under scrutiny cover fiscal 2018 and 2019 and would otherwise expire if not spent by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
Last weekend's order came at the beginning of an extended congressional recess that ends Sept. 9, a time when lawmakers would have more difficulty blocking such a move.
"This administration's contempt for Congress is astounding," said House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel. "When Congress decides how much we can spend on foreign assistance, it isn't a suggestion. It's the law, backed up by the Constitution."
The New York Democrat added that the Republican administration's order "would devastate our ability to project American values and leadership around the globe."
InterAction, a global alliance of nongovernmental organizations that serves "the world's poor and vulnerable," also denounced the order.
"It is both disappointing and saddening that President Trump consistently undermines the decisions that our elected representatives in Congress have made to support foreign assistance," said CEO Sam Worthington. "Data tells us that the small fraction of America's budget that goes to foreign aid yields big results. The White House's repeated political ploys to halt aid threaten the effectiveness of U.S. assistance and put America's global leadership at risk."
Liz Schrayer, chief executive officer of the nonprofit U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, described the administration's order as "a reckless and irresponsible move" and added, "OMB appears set on taking a sledgehammer to one of the most minuscule parts of the entire federal budget that would significantly damage America's security and economic interests — and thwart congressional authority."
OMB spokeswoman Rachel Semmel said federal agencies have a responsibility to appropriately spend the congressionally approved funds.
"In an effort to ensure accountability, OMB has requested the current status of several foreign assistance accounts to identify the amount of funding that is unobligated," she said.
In all its budget proposals, the Trump administration has proposed deep cuts to foreign aid, but Congress rejected those proposals.
The Trump administration made a similar attempt last year while Congress was in recess. But the White House abandoned the effort after opposition from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and members of Congress.