Last summer, Congressman Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a longtime leader on American foreign policy, was about to launch one of the most significant legislative initiatives of his career.
After countless hours of work that started in 2008 when he took over the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Berman and his staff were finalizing a nearly 1,000-page bill that would have completely overhauled the 1961 U.S. Foreign Assistance Act.
Then the 30-year congressman lost his re-election bid.
As part of a 2010 redistricting in California, Berman’s traditionally safe seat evaporated. As it happened, both Berman and a fellow Democratic Jewish congressman, Rep. Brad Sherman, lived in the same newly drawn district that came up for grabs in California’s western San Fernando Valley. A bitter primary battle ensured in early 2012 (during one acrimonious debate, the two almost seemed to come to blows) and Berman came up short on Election Day last year. Sherman went on to win the seat in the general election.
Naturally, the loss stung Berman, who deeply valued his job as an influential congressman, as well as his consistently strong approval ratings. But the former congressman recently rebounded, landing a high-profile job with the public policy and government affairs practice at Covington & Burling, one of Washington’s premier law and lobbying firms. Berman brings to the firm an extensive list of contacts in government — and around the world. He is expected to beef up Covington’s international client list at a time when the U.S. economy is suffering and lucrative global contacts are more valuable than ever. Covington has an office in Brussels and conducts extensive work in the European Union and London, as well as in Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul.
Asked about his adjustment to life outside of elected office, Berman, 71, sounded a bit wistful but optimistic.
“Obviously, I ran for re-election — I loved it. It was a great honor and very interesting, but I’m quite happy to be doing what I’m doing now,” Berman told The Washington Diplomat in a wide-ranging interview. “This is a different kind of challenge and it also interests me. There is no point in looking back.”
Indeed, in his interview, Berman sounded mostly forward-looking about his new job and a host of foreign policy issues, including Congress’s growing bent toward isolationism, its relationship with Israel, and how America can conduct its business overseas — and assist other countries — more effectively.
The former congressman was still crafting American foreign policy until his final days in office. In mid-December — just a few weeks before he had to leave Capitol Hill — Berman introduced the foreign assistance bill he’d labored over for years. The Obama administration has begun to implement some of its initiatives but a broad overhaul of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 — first passed into law when John F. Kenney was president — remains uncertain at best.
In his fiscal 2014 budget, however, President Obama proposed a major change in the way the United States supplies food aid abroad. That budget includes $47.8 billion for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, a 6 percent decrease from last year’s request.
Notably, it would allow almost half of the $1.4 billion requested for food assistance to be spent on local bulk food purchases in the target nation or on individual vouchers for local purchases — instead of requiring that food to be purchased here in the United States. Aid reform advocates say that system is costly and inefficient, forcing the food to be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels and hindering impoverished nations from developing their own food distribution networks.
Berman told us that Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) is hoping to pick up the torch on his legislation and carry it through the congressional committee maze and eventually to Obama’s desk. One significant element of Berman’s foreign assistance rewrite is that the legislation is broken into multiple parts — such as data transparency initiatives — meaning it could be passed piecemeal, which even he concedes would be better than nothing at all.
“One of my biggest disappointments in not going back [and being re-elected] was that I thought that this bill was very important,” Berman said. “We spent a huge amount of time getting ready for this effort.”
Berman explained how the legislation aims to transform U.S. foreign aid from a donor-recipient relationship, in which the United States doles out money and foreign countries agree to a set of conditions for receiving that money, to one in which both countries work toward “mutually agreed upon and beneficial goals.”
“We want to create country ownership of the work that is being done in these recipient countries and get them directly involved, so then what they do will be sustained because it’s a priority for them, as well,” Berman explained. “The legislation says we should let the programs be driven by mutually agreed upon goals, rather than from Washington or checking the box on what a particular government wants.”
Some of the many specifics in Berman’s bill include:
— requiring that the impact of U.S. foreign assistance be measured in a systematic and comprehensive way
— banning the launch of multiyear projects unless funds are set aside to complete them at the outset
— expanding the jurisdiction of the USAID inspector general
— establishing a clear division of labor in carrying out programs
— streamlining overlapping and conflicting law, procurement rules and regulations
— requiring all foreign assistance data be posted on the Internet
— increasing availability of information on arms sales and military training
— providing for publication of human rights reports in local languages
Yet history has not been kind to reform efforts. USAID — the primary foreign assistance agency — acknowledges as much in a white paper on its website.
“Since 1960, there have been at least seven major foreign aid reform efforts,” the 2010 report said. “Only two — the early achievements of the Kennedy administration and passage of the New Directions legislation in 1973 — could be considered successful efforts.”
Berman said the common sense goals of his bill should supersede much of the predictable partisan sniping on Capitol Hill.
“We believe this is something that should attract bipartisan support,” he told The Diplomat. “It’s not about how much you spend on foreign aid — it’s much larger than that. We think [the existing law] is just out of date. We want to decentralize some of the missions and we want to strengthen USAID.”
Berman has long been a voice for investment in foreign affairs. He has frequently pointed out that international affairs spending represents only about 1 percent of the overall federal budget. Development and humanitarian spending amount to even tinier sliver of that pie — less than half of that 1 percent.
Yet diplomacy and development remain indispensable tools for promoting U.S. relations abroad, especially as Americans grow wary of military interventions overseas.
“Despite these facts, there continues to be a widespread misunderstanding about the size of our foreign aid program,” Berman said in a congressional speech last year. “Polls show that most people think it is upward of 20 percent of the budget and that cutting foreign aid will somehow balance the budget. What is interesting is that the amount people think we should be spending on foreign aid is about 10 times more than we actually spending.
“It bears repeating that we give humanitarian and development aid not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is the smart thing to do,” he continued. “Addressing hunger, disease and human misery abroad is a cost-effective way of making Americans safer here at home. And it is infinitely cheaper to address these with economic and technical assistance now than to wait until fragile states collapse or conflicts erupt in wide-scale violence and we have to resort to costly emergency aid or even military action.”
The former congressman stressed that his legislative initiative wasn’t a spending bill so much as a smart reform bill. He conceded that dire budget straits in Washington make any new spending difficult.
“The budget realities do impact that,” he said. “This foreign assistance reform is not to say we should spend more or less money, but whatever money we decide to spend should be spent better.”
Berman said he worries that a growing segment of Congress — and by extension America — is averse to any kind of U.S. involvement abroad. The Republican-led tea party movement, in particular, has been disdainful of U.S. meddling abroad.
“I am worried about that,” Berman said. “It is part of a larger fear I have that there are growing voices in both political parties that think America is better served by disengaging. On so many different levels, I think that’s the wrong approach.
“We’re a globalized world,” he continued. “The notion that the country is better served at a time when everything is so interconnected that what happens in one place so impacts other things … it seems foolish to make the case that this is the time to disengage.”
Berman, a staunch defender of Israel in the American foreign policy establishment during his three decades in Congress, gave Obama generally good marks for managing the relationship. The Diplomat spoke with Berman just after Obama returned from his trip to the Middle East in late March, where he aimed to re-launch the stalled peace process by asking young Israelis to pressure their leaders for a peace agreement with the Palestinians while acknowledging the Jewish state’s historical right to exist and defend itself.
“Notwithstanding some mistakes at the beginning, which have been corrected, the level of security cooperation, intelligence sharing and trying to find a common purpose is very strong between the U.S. and Israel,” Berman said. “You talk to their military and intelligence leadership — there has never been a time when the cooperation has been better than it is now. That’s a tribute to the administration’s commitments there.
“The administration’s recent trip was very effective in showing the people of Israel that [Obama] values the U.S.-Israel relationship, as well as wanting to do as much as possible to try to pursue the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that protects the Israeli security and gives the Palestinians a state,” he added.
Berman rejected the notion held by some that Congress kowtows to the Jewish-Israeli lobby out of fear of political retribution.
“I don’t buy it,” he said bluntly. “I think our relationship with Israel is serving our interest and Israel’s interest. I’ve always been one who is willing to push when it made sense to push. There is a massive campaign to try to de-legitimize the state of Israel and when you look at the other countries of the world, they are quite willing to give short shrift to Israel’s security needs and to internalize Israel as a permanent part of the Middle East.
“I think U.S. policy helps to overcome that sentiment and resist that sentiment,” Berman said. “American policy is very clear: We want two states for two peoples and we do a great deal of assistance for the Palestinian Authority. We promote security cooperation between the PA and the state of Israel, we invest heavily in Israel’s security needs, but we also try to help the Palestinians find a better life.”
Finally, Berman chuckled when asked about criticism of former members of Congress who leave Capitol Hill and immediately take a lobbying job, trading contacts for lucrative contracts. Federal law prohibits former members from becoming lobbyists for a year, although they can be “consultants” and other paid advisors.
Berman pointed out that the decision to find a new line of work wasn’t exactly his.
“I didn’t go to Congress to build up a base to become a lobbyist — I lost an election,” he exclaimed. “Why wouldn’t I want to take some of the skills and contacts I developed in Congress to try to resolve problems and help people who deserve help? I’m aware of the sensitivity here.
“There are people who provide very useful services by trying to inform members of Congress about things they may not know much about. In some cases it’s perverse and counterproductive, but it all depends on how you go about it,” he added. “Everybody is entitled to have people representing them. It is the American way. “
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.