Discretionary Spending

Function 150 - International Affairs

Reduce Funding for International Affairs Programs

CBO periodically issues a compendium of policy options (called Options for Reducing the Deficit) covering a broad range of issues, as well as separate reports that include options for changing federal tax and spending policies in particular areas. This option appears in one of those publications. The options are derived from many sources and reflect a range of possibilities. For each option, CBO presents an estimate of its effects on the budget but makes no recommendations. Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply an endorsement or rejection by CBO.

Billions of Dollars 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 2026 2017-2021 2017-2026
Change in Spending                        
  Budget authority 0 -14 -15 -15 -15 -16 -16 -16 -17 -17 -59 -141
  Outlays 0 -6 -9 -12 -13 -14 -15 -15 -16 -16 -40 -117

This option would take effect in October 2017.

The budget for international affairs funds diplomatic and consular programs, global health initiatives, security assistance, and other programs. In 2016, those programs cost an estimated total of $51.6 billion, including $11.3 billion for international security assistance, $8.2 billion for diplomatic and consular programs, $9.0 billion for global health programs, and $1.2 billion for narcotics control and law enforcement programs. Most funding for international affairs is funneled through the Department of State or the Agency for International Development. Several other agencies, such as the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and the Treasury, also receive funding for overseas assistance programs. Eliminating any single program would result in very modest savings, but a broad cut to the entire international affairs budget could yield significant savings.

This option would reduce the total international affairs budget by 25 percent. By doing so, the option would save $117 billion from 2018 through 2026, the Congressional Budget Office estimates.

An advantage of this option is that reducing federal spending on international affairs could encourage the private sector to take a larger role in providing foreign assistance. Private organizations already provide significant resources for various international initiatives, such as HIV/AIDS research and financial development assistance, and further diversifying funding sources for international initiatives could increase their overall success. In addition, some of the government’s foreign assistance may be ineffective at promoting growth and reducing poverty. Although some projects and programs are generally considered successful, the Congressional Research Service concludes that “in most cases, clear evidence of the success or failure of U.S. assistance programs is lacking, both at the program level and in the aggregate.” Another argument for this option is that a reduction in federal spending on international affairs would lead to greater savings than eliminating smaller foreign aid programs, such as cargo preference for international food assistance (which is projected to cost less than $500 million from 2018 through 2026).

The primary argument against this option is that reducing funding for international affairs programs could have far-reaching effects that might ultimately impede both the international and the domestic policy agendas of the United States. Such programs, which encompass many activities in addition to foreign aid, are central to establishing and maintaining positive relations with other countries. Those relationships contribute to increased economic opportunities at home, better international cooperation, and enhanced national security. Significant reductions in federal funding for international affairs programs could hinder humanitarian, environmental, public health, economic, and national security efforts.