Funding Games: Sad Plight of the East-West Center

Funding Games: Sad Plight of the East-West Center

By Lou Cannon - March 27, 2013

At a time when the Obama administration seeks to emphasize U.S-Asia relations after years of focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan, the East-West Center (EWC) in Honolulu ought to be flourishing.

Created by Congress in 1960 to promote understanding between the United States and the nations and peoples of Asia, the center is a valuable resource. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton visited the EWC three times and made her most significant policy statements on Asia there. She lauded the center for bringing together educators, students, journalists, and political leaders and contributing to a “sea change” in the region.

Located in a state where many people have Asian-Pacific ancestors, the EWC is a nonprofit organization with considerable expertise, a lean organizational structure, 750 partner groups and 57,000 alumni worldwide. It organizes many public diplomacy and educational programs, including exchanges between U.S. and Asian journalists, support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and educational outreach for Okinawa.

The EWC has also responded quickly in times of crisis. On short notice it transferred the Johns Hopkins China program to the center during the SARS epidemic in 2002. Within 24 hours of the 2004 tsunami the EWC set up a fund that raised a half-million dollars for Indonesian relief. (Disclosure: I have occasionally spoken at the EWC and know members of the staff.)

Yet despite these contributions, the East-West Center now faces massive budget reductions that have already resulted in cancellation of some scholarships and now threaten staff layoffs and the elimination of many useful programs.

The federal budget request for the 2014 fiscal year is currently set at $10.8 million, a 35 percent reduction following a 20 percent cut last year. The EWC raises as much or more from private contributors and foundations, but much of this money is targeted for specific programs and cannot be used for routine expenses.

Those who are superficially aware of the EWC’s situation are apt to blame the sequester, the automatic federal budget cuts that began earlier this month. In fact, the budget reductions facing the center are seven times the amount that would be imposed by the sequester, which has little to do with the center’s current plight.

Instead, the EWC is an unintended budget casualty of the death of venerable Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye (the Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee) and of federal bureaucratic games that began during the George W. Bush administration and have continued unimpeded throughout Barack Obama’s presidency.

Starting about a decade ago, the East-West Center budget was handled in a special way by both the executive branch and the House Appropriations Committee. The executive branch, led by the green-eyeshade folks at the Office of Management and Budget and with the complicity of the State Department, would provide a figure that typically was half the EWC budget for the previous year.

The House would reduce the budget to nothing as a tactic for negotiating with the Senate. The EWC budget then went to a House-Senate conference committee on which Inouye played a key role. In conference Inouye would, to use congressional jargon, “plus up” the EWC budget to the level of the previous year. This maneuver was always backed by the State Department, which had contributed to torpedoing the EWC budget in the first place. The increased figure would be incorporated in the final budget passed by Congress and signed into law by the president.

When the Senate stopped passing budgets during the first four years of the Obama administration, the charade continued in the continuing resolutions under which Congress funded government.

But it all collapsed after Inouye died this past December at the age of 88. The EWC budget at this point had already been reduced, and the center had lost its “plus-up” champion in the Senate.

Brian Schatz, who replaced Inouye, is a promising young senator and strong supporter of the East-West Center, but he is a freshman with little clout in Washington. Schatz and others have urged an increase in EWC funding, only to be caught in a chicken-and-egg game between the OMB and the State Department. The budget office says it cannot make changes without a request from State, which says it cannot do so because of OMB guidance.

Although it’s too soon to know, the center may be suffering as much from the change at the top of the State Department as from Inouye’s passing. Hillary Clinton is considered an architect of the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, a term she used in a 2011 Foreign Policy magazine article, “America’s Pacific Century.”

The article, coupled with stepped-up U.S. naval exercises in the region, alarmed China, which saw “pivot” as code for U.S. confrontation. President Obama has since replaced “pivot” with “rebalancing,” the word used by Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, in his confirmation hearings.

Kerry seems typecast for the role of secretary of state, but has been preoccupied since taking over with various firestorms in the Middle East. Asia has been on the back burner, although that could change if Kerry travels in April to China, as expected.

In the meantime, the East-West Center flounders without a champion in Washington. That’s sad. The center’s financial needs are small potatoes in the $3.7 trillion billion budget passed last week by the Senate, and the EWC plays a useful role.

As Kurt Campbell, now of the Asia Group, observed when he was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs: No other institution has done more to build bridges and support dialogue between the United States and the nations of the region. 

Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.

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