Just as Punxsutawney Phil crawled from his hole this week, the perennial debate over sending taxpayer money to foreign lands emerged once more on Capitol Hill.
In its effort to get a handle on the turmoil, the Obama administration raised the specter of ending military aid to Egypt. The second-largest recipient of U.S. largesse after Israel, Egypt has gotten more than $250 billion in weaponry since 1950, and that doesn't count the billions sent there for economic development and the promotion of democracy.
As the revolt in Tahrir Square demonstrates, though, the U.S. might have wanted to spend a few more bucks on that last item. Now the Democratic chairman of the Senate subcommittee that handles foreign aid, Patrick Leahy, is threatening to cut off military aid to Egypt unless President Hosni Mubarak steps down.
Paul insists he isn't "singling out Israel." He just thinks zeroing out foreign aid is a key to shrinking the federal deficit and cutting government spending by $500 billion in 2011.
He isn't the first Republican to target foreign aid. Jesse Helms, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called it "money down a rathole." Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay once defined it as "putting Ghana over Grandma."
All foreign aid "should be on the table," said Matt Kibbe of the conservative group FreedomWorks, a major organizer of the tea party movement.
Most Americans agree. A recent Gallup Poll showed foreign aid tops the list of government programs the public wants cut, with 59 percent favoring reductions.
Yet most Americans vastly overestimate how much money goes to foreign aid. Surveys show the public believes the government spends 25 percent of the federal budget on it and wants it cut back to 10 percent.
In fact, just 1 percent of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid compared with 20 percent each for Social Security and defense.
"If that 1 percent was gone, the only face America would be putting to the world is one of helmets and boots on the ground," said Sam Worthington, who heads InterAction, a coalition of U.S.-based relief groups that includes CARE and the International Rescue Committee. "It would deeply impact our image in the world and our ability to relate to other peoples."
According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, foreign aid is at its highest level since the Cold War. It has risen sharply since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks after hitting an all-time low in the 1990s. While it is true that the United States is the largest international economic aid donor in absolute dollars, it is also the stingiest among major donor governments as a percentage of gross national income.
"The return on investment is extraordinary. We are not going to balance the budget by eliminating foreign assistance," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Whether helping shape strategically important countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq, fighting narco-criminals in Latin America or battling HIV/AIDS in Africa, "we have significant national interests associated with our foreign assistance," he said. "Cutting off foreign assistance will place the American people at greater risk. It will reduce our ability to shape regional events and solve global challenges."
Welfare for Dictators?
A widely heard complaint in Cairo this week is that American aid helped keep Mubarak's repressive regime in power. His wouldn't be the first.
Yet before the abuses of the 1950s and '60s, there was the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II. As John Norris, who heads the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress, notes, it was fiercely opposed by Paul's ideological forbears, who also saw it as a waste of tax dollars.
"It's always been a popular measure with Congress in that it plays to the bleachers," Norris said.
In part, that may be because of the murky definition of "foreign assistance." At least 26 federal agencies provide foreign aid, most notably the State Department and the Pentagon.
The government breaks aid into seven categories, with the largest share of funds going to "peace and security," i.e., military aid.
More than half of foreign aid goes for reconstruction and counterterrorism in the Middle East and South Asia. Colombia and Mexico make the top 15 of 154 countries receiving aid thanks largely to the war on drugs.
From fighter jets to split peas, from catching narcotraffickers to forgiving debt in the world's poorest countries, the Congressional Research Service said foreign aid cost taxpayers $27.7 billion in 2008, the most recent year it studied. In 2010, humanitarian funds went to earthquake relief in Haiti and flood aid in Pakistan.
While buying goodwill doesn't always go as planned, Democrats aren't the only supporters of foreign aid.
President George W. Bush won accolades from his usual critics for his emergency relief plan to spend $15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa.
More recently, three prominent Republicans wrote, "Our foreign assistance is a projection of our responsible leadership in the world; it is more important than ever to our security and economic interests. We must take the politics out of this debate and get down to the facts."
Foreign aid is not "charity for people who hate us," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Foreign aid is a useful tool to get foreign governments to do things we want them to do."
Not to mention the domestic benefits. Among the main recipients of tax dollars under the Food for Peace program are American farmers who sell their surplus crops to the government.
Still, there could be improvements. In 2004, with President Bush's blessing, Congress created the Millennium Challenge Corp. to funnel aid to countries committed to good governance.
Last month, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah outlined how his agency is "scaling back our footprint to shift resources to critical regions, rationalizing our operations and vigilantly fighting fraud, waste and abuse." He said the government would end aid to at least seven countries by 2015, starting with Montenegro next year.
But he said foreign aid "provides the best impact when it is used as a strategic long-term investment in sound governance and the economic well-being of people around the world and when it leverages action by other aid donors and the private sector."
Proposals like Paul's to do away with all foreign aid are "dangerously isolationist," he said. "In terms of the budget and deficit reduction, eliminating foreign aid is like going to the Jersey Shore and using a water pail to reduce rising sea levels."
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