Foreign aid is a subject of frequent criticism in deliberations on the federal budget, despite it being a miniscule percentage of total U.S. spending. And the current budget crunch is not exactly helping defenders of international programs on Capitol Hill.
Following are five key staffers who work behind the scenes on foreign policy issues and help oversee the purse strings of the State Department.
Danny O'Brien, majority staff director, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and his staff made no effort to prepare for his Foreign Relations Committee chairmanship until then-Sen. John Kerry was confirmed as secretary of State. Kerry then took a slew of committee staffers with him, leaving O'Brien to prepare for a new order in February. O'Brien, 50, who was chief of staff for Menendez and for former committee ranking member Joe Biden, D-Del., has worked in the Senate for about a decade, and previously spent seven years in South America and Eastern Europe working on AFL-CIO trade union and democracy programs. The committee is developing an embassy security bill, has passed a resolution on Syria in support of arming vetted opposition groups, and is monitoring Egypt closely. "Aid to the Egyptian military should be looked at, but it also should be used as potential leverage to affect the way the military is handling this phase as they move toward a new constitution and promised elections right afterwards," O'Brien said. Budget challenges in foreign affairs are broader than just this year's sequestration, he said. "[We're] in a very difficult time where a lot of people are questioning federal funding priorities, and there's a lot of neo-conservatism and isolationism," he said. Menendez must demonstrate to Americans the importance of foreign policy relationships with other countries through trade and commerce, said O'Brien, a Southern California native who went to the University of Redlands.
Tim Rieser, majority clerk, Senate State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee
Rieser, considered indispensable on the Hill (where he has worked for almost three decades), laments how "at a time when our budget is under extreme stress … what is often mischaracterized as foreign aid is not seen as a priority." Rieser, 61, worked for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and joined the subcommittee when Leahy became chairman in 1989. According to Rieser, Leahy sees "one of his critical functions to protect this budget, protect the ability of our diplomats, our embassies, our people in the field who are representing the United States on the whole array of global issues from climate change to Syria. And you can't do that if you're going to cut staff, cut the budget, terminate programs, and act like the United Nations doesn't matter." The subcommittee works under fixed budget ceilings doled out by the full committee, and must assign policy priorities within that budget framework—and can't go a single penny over. Determining what's most important to fund requires close collaboration on both sides of the aisle on both a member and staff level. Rieser, a New Hampshire native who received his bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College and his law degree from the Antioch School of Law, is a former public defender in Vermont.
Anne Marie Chotvacs, majority clerk, House State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee
Chaired by Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, the subcommittee has a "significant challenge" to stay within funding levels set by the full Appropriations Committee, Chotvacs said. She and her team go through budget documents "line by line" to make recommendations to Granger and Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky. The last time both the House and Senate passed a bill authorizing funding for the State Department was in 2003, she noted, making it even harder to come to agreement on policy priorities. Chotvacs is a longtime budget guru, starting on the Appropriations Committee on detail from the Commerce Department's budget office about 10 years ago. She always had an interest in budget and appropriations and cultivated foreign policy experience "learning on the job," she said. Chotvacs, 38, is a graduate of Presbyterian College in South Carolina and holds a master's degree in public administration from the University of Georgia.
Steve Marchese, minority staff director, House State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee
The subcommittee's top Democratic staffer under ranking member Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., Marchese has worked on the Foreign Operations subcommittee for a roughly 16 years and spent about eight years at the State Department. Sequestration is reducing the country's readiness overseas from a foreign policy and diplomacy standpoint, Marchese said. "We want to be engaged with diplomacy overseas, we want to be working with people so the terrorists and extremists don't get a foothold." Cuts make the panel's job more difficult. "How do you decide what's more important? … Should we be funding programs to Afghanistan, or counterterrorism programs in Yemen? … We don't have the resources to do both. You've got to decide which is more urgent to our national security." In sub-Saharan Africa, Marchese said, "should we be focusing on development, counterterrorism, justice, or the rule of law, trafficking of persons? They're all different tradeoffs." Honing a message for members of Congress on foreign aid can be complicated. "It's hard to show the direct impact of foreign aid on your constituency. The amount of trade—the activities that the State Department does for businesses overseas—these are things people don't realize." Marchese, 47, went to Illinois State University and sold steel before getting into politics.
Tom Sheehy, majority staff director, House Foreign Affairs Committee
Sheehy took over this post in January under the new chairman, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif. Sheehy, 49, is no stranger to the Foreign Affairs Committee, having been staff director on the Africa subcommittee and the Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade subcommittee. With new chairmen and ranking members in both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee this year, Sheehy believes the turnover means renewed opportunity for collaboration on foreign affairs across the chambers. Right now the committee is focused on getting the committee-passed Iran sanctions bill—which has over 300 cosponsors—to the House floor and eventually enacted into law. The committee is also working on the annual State Department authorization bill and the ongoing investigation into the attack in Benghazi, where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed. A former analyst at the Heritage Foundation, Sheehy has always been interested in U.S. foreign policy. A Boston native with a master's in international affairs from the University of Virginia, Sheehy became interested in Africa issues after an internship at a beer factory in Ghana when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College.
Hot Seats is a weekly series highlighting significant staff positions in the 113th Congress. To suggest a position or staffer for the list, please tweet to @NJLeadership or e-mail Managing Editor Kristin Roberts at email@example.com.
This article appears in the July 15, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.