Browsing the news about budget cuts, government reorganization, and the likely dismantling of USAID, I came across this Moment in Diplomatic History from the website of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training: The ACDA-USIA Merger into State — The End of an Era .
ACDA? USIA? That era ended so long ago that many currently-employed types might not remember those agencies, but they were once independent foreign affairs agencies until they lost a political fight and were absorbed into the State Department.
As the Cold War began to go into full swing, the United States soon realized the need for distinct agencies that would operate outside of the existing federal executive departments. Accordingly, independent agencies such as the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the United States Information Agency (USIA) were created in 1961 and 1953 respectively to address new challenges and issues that were occurring in the ideological struggle of the time.
However, as the conflict gradually came to an end, certain individuals such as Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), who was the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, began to see these organizations as superfluous and unwieldy and viewed them as “Cold War agencies.” He then pushed to fold them into the State Department. With the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1998, both agencies were fully absorbed into the State Department by 1999.
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When the Cold War was over, Helms, as the powerful Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led a campaign to eliminate the three foreign affairs agencies – USAID, ACDA, and USIA – arguing it was necessary to cut costs and reduce the size of government. His primary targets were USAID and ACDA. He was not opposed to an independent USIA, but the Agency got swept up in his larger argument about the need to eliminate government agencies.
When these issues were debated in the first Clinton Administration, Vice President Al Gore and Elaine Kamarck, one of his senior staff advisors, led a vigorous campaign to maintain the independence of the three agencies. In letters to Congress, they argued their merger with State was unwise organizationally and would not save money. The Advisory Commission was deeply involved in this discourse and supported USIA’s independence.
In 1996, however, the politics changed. Incoming Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wanted to have a good working relationship with Senator Helms as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee more than preservation of the three agencies. As President Clinton confirmed in his recent memoir, My Life, the administration needed the Committee’s support for its Chemical Weapons treaty. The reorganization of USAID, ACDA, and USIA was part of the deal.
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When the dust settled in 1999, USAID had effectively fought to remain semi-autonomous. ACDA preserved its organizational coherence within State. USIA’s activities were decentralized throughout the Department.
One of the ways USAID fought for its survival was to do a data call and document how surprisingly few of its development dollars ever ended up with foreigners; a large portion of its budget stayed with contractors and vendors inside the Beltway, or so it told Senator Helms, anyway. But even that ploy might not help USAID this time.
With such a heavy budget rain about to fall, it looks like it's the end of foreign aid as we know it.