The Trump administration has ordered the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development to freeze much of the remaining money for foreign aid this year, in a move that suggests the funding could be cut altogether.
The decision, issued in a letter by the Office of Management and Budget, covers a broad range of foreign aid that Congress had already approved and halted the agencies’ ability to distribute $2 billion to $4 billion of funding as of Saturday.
The State Department and the aid agency, commonly known as U.S.A.I.D., must give “an accounting” of all “unobligated resources” of foreign aid, meaning funding that has not been officially designated yet for specific purposes, the letter said.
The letter identified 10 areas of aid to which the freeze would apply, including development assistance, global health, contributions to international organization, international narcotics control and peacekeeping activities.
The money under review covers the fiscal years 2018 and 2019, which ends on Sept. 30. Agencies often wait until the end of a fiscal year to designate funds.
Critics of the order noted that the funding was less than one-tenth of one percent of the federal budget.
“In a reckless and irresponsible move, O.M.B. appears set on taking a sledgehammer to one of the most minuscule parts of the entire federal budget that would significantly damage America’s security and economic interests — and thwart congressional authority,” said Liz Schrayer, the chief executive of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a nonprofit group that is an advocate for American diplomacy and counts large companies and nongovernmental organizations as members.
The order came at the start of a long congressional recess, but lawmakers are asking the State Department about the decision. A senior Democratic aide said on Tuesday that Congress had allocated the funds to protect national security interests. The move would set a precedent for future administrations to ignore spending bills and eliminate spending obligations, the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because members of Congress were still determining how to respond.
A spokeswoman for the budget office, Rachel Semmel, said that federal agencies had a responsibility to properly use the money provided by Congress. “In an effort to ensure accountability, O.M.B. has requested the current status of several foreign assistance accounts to identify the amount of funding that is unobligated,” she said.
A State Department representative acknowledged the review and said only, “No decision has been made on what will be done with those funds.” Additional questions were referred to the Office of Management and Budget.
The New York Times obtained a copy of the office’s letter on Tuesday. The Washington Post first reported on the letter on Monday.
The Trump administration has proposed drastic cuts to foreign aid in all its budget proposals, but Congress has rejected those moves each time. President Trump has criticized foreign aid in general, cutting aid to Palestinian refugees and three Central American countries, among others. He has said the Central American nations must prevent their citizens from trying to migrate to the United States.
After the review, the Office of Management and Budget could return money for projects it considers unnecessary to the Treasury Department, in a process known as rescission. The office would send a rescission package to Congress, which would then have 45 days to decide whether to approve ending the funds.
The office’s gambit is based on timing, its critics say. Congress is in recess until Sept. 9, so even if it rejects a rescission package, the State Department and U.S.A.I.D. will have only until the end of that month, when the fiscal year ends, to designate the funds.
The money remains frozen at least until the budget office finishes its review. If the office recommends sending the funds back to the Treasury, Congress must approve the action within 45 days or the agencies keep the funds. But the aid agency’s window to designate the money opens only after Congress acts or the 45 days expires.
Last year, the office made a similar move six weeks before the end of the fiscal year, also as Congress was in recess. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opposed the budget director, Mick Mulvaney, over the decision, and members of Congress also voiced concern. The White House dropped the action.
In December, the Government Accountability Office ruled that the administration had no legal authority to make strategically timed attempts to halt and cancel funding in an effort to undermine Congress’s appropriations power.
The letter this year arrived at the State Department as Mr. Pompeo was in Australia on a diplomatic trip.
Mr. Pompeo is considered the most powerful of the president’s cabinet members, though he sometimes loses policy arguments to other senior officials. He tends to stay closely aligned with Mr. Trump. Analysts and administration officials say Mr. Pompeo, a former congressman, may run for a Senate seat representing Kansas in 2020 or for the presidency in 2024.
Michael Crowley contributed reporting.