Amazingly, a Dysfunctional Congress Delivers

By Marc Hanson

This week, the Washington Post published a poll showing that the U.S. Congress has set a new record for disapproval. A whopping 84 percent of Americans do not approve of the way Congress is doing its job. Media coverage of the House and Senate highlights the brinksmanship and polarized politicking that seems to surround every piece of legislation – and now, even routine nominations and confirmations.

It’s hard not to notice that with each passing day, our political system seems to tie itself in knots in new (and increasingly absurd) ways. So it may come as a surprise that late last year, while media coverage turned to the Congressional battle royale over payroll taxes, members of both chambers and parties came together to help the world’s most vulnerable people.

On December 16, 2011, nearly 300 members of the House of Representatives – split equally between Republicans and Democrats – voted to pass the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012. The Senate passed the same bill the following day, with two-thirds of the body voting in favor.

En route to passing the legislation, the Senate soundly rejected multiple attempts by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) to slash the international affairs budget and retreat into an austere, isolationist foreign policy. Instead, Congress rallied: making hard decisions and enacting modest cuts to some programs, but largely securing the investments America will need to maintain global leadership and alleviate human suffering.

Congress ultimately appropriated $1.86 billion for the budget’s “Migration and Refugee Assistance” account and another $975 million for the “International Disaster Assistance” account – the main planks of U.S.  humanitarian response. While not completely meeting Refugees International’s targets, these funding levels – combined with smart policies – can support a meaningful response to severe humanitarian emergencies. This will be more important than ever in 2012, as the U.S. attempts to tackle famine in the Horn of Africa, the continuing displacement crisis in Colombia, and instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and South Sudan.

Congress was unable to meet RI’s ambitious target for the “Contributions to International Peacekeeping Activities” account. Nevertheless, at a time when countries the world round are forced to make do with less, U.S. funding for United Nations peacekeeping missions effectively remained steady.

Maintaining the UN peacekeeping budget is an important statement of American leadership not just to respond to humanitarian crises, but also to reduce the major drivers behind displacement through proactive investment. Supporting UN peacekeeping helps bring stability to troubled regions and creates the necessary conditions to reduce violence, protect civilians, and deliver aid to people in need.

While Congress remains highly polarized, the commitment of both politicians to a strong, humane foreign policy should be applauded. And while the grey clouds of partisanship continue to gather over Washington D.C., continuing U.S. support for humanitarian assistance surely counts as a silver lining.