Congress Slams Obama Team On Egypt Aid Decision

Even Democrats say the president should have consulted lawmakers outside his inner circle before making a unilateral change to foreign policy.

Patrick Leahy (D-VT) speaks during the confirmations hearing for Elena Kagan, the Solicitor General, at the Committee on the Judiciary Nomination Hearing on the third day of the hearings on Wednesday, June 30, 2010.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
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Sara Sorcher
Oct. 10, 2013, 12:17 p.m.

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.”

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