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Obama's Global Poverty Bill is Back

May 26, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

This time last year, with the presidential race in full swing, the RNC put out an aggressive fund raising pitch: “Good for America – or Good for Obama?”

“It seems the Democrats’ would-be president of the United States of America really believes that the rest of the world’s problems, and approval, trump the interests of Americans when it comes to how we live our lives and where our money is spent,” the RNC wrote in an email to their membership. They called out Obama on one bill in particular that he had introduced in the Senate, the Global Poverty Act of 2007, which they said “would raise the amount of American tax dollars allocated to United Nations’ redistribution efforts to $845 billion.” On his radio show Rush Limbaugh warned that the bill was “just the tip of the iceberg, should he win.”

The bill didn’t pass in the Senate last year. If it had, it would possibly have been vetoed by former President Bush. But with the Democrats’ expanded majority in the Senate this year and Barack Obama in the White House, the bill could easily become law. That’s why it’s big news that the bill has officially been reintroduced into the current session of Congress as the Global Poverty Act of 2009 by Rep. Adam Smith [D, WA-9]. It is now on a clear course towards becoming law. As such, I want to take a minute to address some of concerns about the bill.

What would it do?

The bill would require the President to develop and implement through the Secretary of State a strategy to achieve a set of global poverty-reduction targets, including ones established at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000. According to the bill’s summary, the strategy should be focused on “the reduction of global poverty, the elimination of extreme global poverty, and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by one-half the proportion of people worldwide, between 1990 and 2015, who live on less than $1 per day.”

According to the Congressional Research Service, the bill calls on the President’s strategy to include the following measurable targets and components: (1) continued investment or involvement in existing U.S. initiatives related to international poverty reduction and trade preference programs for developing countries; (2) improving the effectiveness of development assistance and making available additional overall United States assistance levels as appropriate; (3) enhancing and expanding debt relief as appropriate; (4) mobilizing and leveraging the participation of businesses and public-private partnerships; (5) coordinating the goal of poverty reduction with other internationally recognized Millennium Development Goals; and (6) integrating principles of sustainable development and entrepreneurship into policies and programs."

How much would it actually cost?

Associating the $845 billion figure with the Global Poverty Act, like the RNC and others have done, is a mistake. The figure comes from a United Nations recommendation that developed countries spend 0.7 percent of their GDP every year to in order to achieve the agreed on Millenium Development Goals. If the United States were to follow this recommendation, we would, in fact, spend $845 billion over the next 13 years. But, nothing in Obama’s Global Poverty Act would commit us to this spending, or, for that matter, hardly any increased spending at all. Although one of the bill’s stated goals – reducing by one-half the proportion of people worldwide, between 1990 and 2015, who live on less than $1 per day – does come straight from the U.N.‘s Millenium Development Goals, it’s only one of 21 specific targets. And it’s just the target, not the strategy for achieving it, that is included in the bill.

In fact, the Congressional Budget Office, the non-partisan agency in charge of attaching budget numbers to bills in Congress, found that the Global Poverty Act would cost less than $1 million per year.

But couldn’t it lead to more foreign-aid spending?

Well, yes, it could, though any new spending stemming from the bill would have to be approved separately by Congress. Requirement (2) of the in the bill calls on the President to include in his strategy “making available additional overall United States assistance levels as appropriate.”

The key thing here is that the bill has no teeth; it would not actually make anything happen besides the creation of a report that would suggesting policies that would themselves have to be approved by Congress and other federal agencies before taking effect. The reality is that this is basically a feel-good bill that let’s the government say they are doing something to address global poverty without actually doing anything. That’s why, for example, the House version of the bill passed the House on a voice vote, meaning that there was so little opposition that neither party cared to challenge it or to even have the roll call data recorded.

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