Rep. Lee wants to bring greater racial equity to foreign aid

Barbara Lee will be the first Black lawmaker to chair the panel that oversees foreign aid and the State Department

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., wants to emphasize women's health in foreign aid programs.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., wants to emphasize women's health in foreign aid programs. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 16, 2021 at 6:00am

The new chairwoman of the House Appropriations foreign aid subcommittee is well known for her longtime advocacy for HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs, women’s access to reproductive health care, and prescient and early opposition to expansive and indefinite military interventions after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Because of this track record, many progressive foreign policy groups have been eagerly anticipating California Democrat Barbara Lee’s ascension to the top of the State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee ever since the panel’s former chairwoman, New York Democrat Nita M. Lowey, announced in late 2019 that she would retire at the end of the 116th Congress.

The subcommittee is charged with allocating annual funding to the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other smaller aid and global affairs entities. In the current fiscal year, Congress appropriated a total of $55.5 billion for diplomacy and foreign aid programs.

After four years of watching former President Donald Trump disrespect longtime foreign allies and praise dictators while constantly questioning the value of foreign aid, Lee, who is the first Black lawmaker to lead the subcommittee, said she is excited to “set the table” with the new Biden administration. 

“I’m really excited as the first African American woman to chair the subcommittee, I hope to really show the country how, once again, we can help make our country stronger in global affairs” by bringing “an added lens of equity, racial equity” to U.S. global engagement, she said.

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Lee has been a longtime member of the subcommittee and had the most seniority on the panel after Lowey. She is generally regarded as more skeptical than Lowey about the benefits of continuing military assistance to some partners in the Middle East such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Lee has also been willing to sign statements criticizing Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank and treatment of the Palestinians. That has caused some consternation with more conservative pro-Israel lobbyist groups.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Lee said it was too early in her tenure as subcommittee head for her to have reached any major decisions about things she wants to change in the annual State-Foreign Operations bill, including security assistance programs, which received $9 billion in fiscal 2021.

“I’m approaching everything through the lens of human rights, development assistance, foreign assistance, humanitarian assistance and what we can do to help,” she said.

Co-chair of Pro-Choice Caucus

Advocates of easing restrictions on how foreign aid funding can be used to indirectly or directly support abortions overseas want to see if Lee will use the annual diplomacy and development spending bill to attempt to repeal or reinterpret the Helms Amendment — a 1973 measure that forbids aid dollars from being used to pay for abortions for “family planning purposes.” Critics of the amendment have argued that it has been too expansively interpreted and that exceptions should be made for cases of life endangerment, incest or rape.

Lee, who was officially named an appropriations “cardinal” less than a month ago, said “we haven’t gotten to that point yet” on deciding how best to approach the Helms Amendment.

But the 12-term lawmaker who represents Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, has been public about her opposition to the Helms Amendment. Last year, she signed on as a co-sponsor to a bill from Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., that would have repealed the measure.

“That is extremely important for me, it’s a priority,” said Lee, who co-chairs the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus. “I’m certainly going to do everything from my subcommittee that I can do to make sure that women throughout the world have access to family planning and have access to everything that they need to ensure that they’re able to take care of themselves, their families and move forward with their lives.”

Late last month, Lee led 177 co-sponsors in introducing legislation that would permanently repeal the so-called Mexico City Rule, a related anti-abortion policy that prohibits U.S. global health funding from going to foreign nongovernmental organizations that provide information, referrals or promote abortions. Over the decades, the policy, also known as the “Global Gag Rule,” has become a partisan ping pong ball, reinstated by Republican administrations only to be repealed by Democratic ones, as President Joe Biden did a few days after taking office.

More generally, Lee said her subcommittee priorities will involve global public health, particularly for women and children, through programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief and the Global Fund, an international public-private initiative to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

“That’s going to be a big emphasis because we have our goals of ending HIV and AIDS by 2030,” she said. “I want to ensure that our committee is positioned to help achieve that goal.”

More aid for the Caribbean

One area where change on the subcommittee under Lee could happen is in a greater focus on regions that she says “have not necessarily been a priority of the subcommittee,” such as Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Lee said she think’s it’s particularly important to give more of a focus to the Caribbean, and not just because China has been deepening its cultural and trade ties with the island region.

“They are our neighbors, right next door,” she said. “We have many immigrants here in the United States from the Caribbean. And we have national security interests, we have humanitarian interests, we have development interests. And they have those interests too, so we want to be good partners with them.”

Among anti-war activists, Lee is probably best known for providing the lone opposition vote in Congress to passage of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against those responsible for 9/11. In the years since, she has been a leader of bipartisan efforts to repeal the military authorization as well as a related 2002 measure that authorized the invasion of Iraq.

Lee said she is open to pursuing a variety of avenues to seeing the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs repealed.

“I’d do it through approps, I’d do it through authorizing. … I’m not sure exactly our path this year, but we definitely intend to continue to do this,” she said. “However, we can repeal the 2001, the 2002 [war resolutions], as you’ve seen by my work in the past, I’m going to continue with that.”