The Obama administration has unveiled the biggest shakeup of Washington's annual $1.3 billion Egypt aid package in three decades, and the decision largely fell flat on Capitol Hill as even key Democratic lawmakers complained that they were cut out of the decision-making process.
The administration announced on Wednesday it was holding back high-priority items from its annual assistance—such as tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets—but that funding for counterterrorism operations, border security, and democracy and governance programs would continue. The move was an effort to encourage Egypt's military to transition to a civilian-led democracy after it ousted president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood this summer.
The announcement came after a flurry of news reports disclosing details of the aid adjustment the night before, which "blindsided" many in Congress, including Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"I would have liked to have expressed my opinion about this with the administration, but since they didn't choose to involve anybody in Congress, I was blindsided," Engel said, lamenting how his staff was stymied in their efforts to get confirmation. Differences of opinion on policy from within Congress is a given on any controversial decision, Engel said, "but I'm ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee, an ally of the administration. I would think they would want to at least brief my staff.… I'm hoping this is a wake-up call. The process has got to change, and the policy is a mistake."
"I think when you're doing policy like that you need to vet it with lots of people," Engel continued, "not just perhaps with your inner circle who is all going to agree."
For its part, the White House kept its response simple. "We will continue to work closely with the Congress so that we can maintain assistance to Egypt going forward when it is in U.S. interests to do so," said Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman.
The adjustment is the first time the aid package has been disrupted to this degree since it was established in the late 1970s. And it's not just Engel who's upset.
A Democratic Senate aide said senators also heard the news from media Tuesday night and were told by the White House no decisions had been made. The following day, the administration held a conference call with members of Congress and cut it short to make a broader announcement to reporters and the public. "Nobody was clued in in advance. Senate leadership. House leadership. Nobody knew," the aide said, adding, "Not be consulted on a decision like this is not a productive way to work cooperatively with Congress."
Another Democratic Senate aide speculated the lack of communication may have been the result of an unauthorized leak. Yet the stories reported by CNN and other outlets before the official decision was announced proved to be fairly accurate, showing the consultation with Congress "was clearly not intended to be anything more than a notification, and that's not what we want," according to the aide. "We want an opportunity to meaningfully participate in the process."
It's not just Democrats who are upset about the administration's lack of consultation. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Egypt assistance, said in a statement she is "very concerned" about the administration's decision to suspend aid "without consulting the Congress."
The Egypt decision itself took some heat on the Hill. For his part, Engel would prefer to work with the Egyptian military to transition to democracy rather than "say, arrogantly, 'We're going to withhold this and withhold that' " and risk alienating that country's leadership, which has reliably kept the cold peace with Israel. Already, Egypt has criticized Washington's decision as "flawed" at a critical time when it is fighting terrorism and promised it would not "bow to American pressure," according to AFP.
Other top Democrats supported a cutoff of aid but deducted style points for the piecemeal suspension of only high-profile items. "The administration is trying to have it both ways, by suspending some aid but continuing other aid," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee. "By doing that, the message is muddled."
This article appears in the October 11, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.