IS AMERICA'S ability to remain at the forefront of an emerging international consensus favoring democratic values and market-oriented reforms being hampered by an outmoded foreign assistance program? That is hardly a burning question on the minds of most people, since foreign aid lacks much of a constituency in either Congress or the country. But the question of the relevance of the Foreign Assistance Act to demands for U.S. leadership around the world is an issue that is being raised at the right time and in the right places in this city.

The irony is that while foreign aid is short on glamour and always out of political favor, it is still quite an attention-getter on Capitol Hill. In fact, it is the Congress's micromanagement of the program that is sparking calls for reform from key lawmakers and administration officials. At last count, according to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Foreign Assistance Act contained more than 30 objectives and priorities. If these weren't enough for the executive branch to manage and administer -- and for Congress to oversee -- there are also close to 300 individual reporting requirements imposed by the Hill on the Agency for International Development, the chief dispenser of foreign aid. On top of that, the executive branch's discretion in foreign aid is hamstrung by Congress' habit of earmarking not only aid levels, but also individual country aid allocations, including the purposes for which those funds may be spent. And to ensure that AID officials are reduced to near-figures of fun and kept busy in Washington instead of in the field, where the real work takes place, AID must notify four different congressional committees each time it wishes to change or reprogram funds for more than 20 percent of a project or activity's originally approved amount. This exercise in congressional bureaucratic red tape occurs more than 700 times a year.

All this means that the flexibility necessary to respond to the emergence of developing democracies in Eastern Europe or the tilt toward market forces in Africa or even the economic impact on the Third World of Saddam Hussein's aggression must be subordinated to an outmoded process more oriented toward process and prerogatives than solutions and results.

The Bush administration has now signaled an interest in working with Congress to construct a new legislative framework for foreign assistance. This is a welcome change in attitude from 1989, when the White House allowed the reform effort to falter in the Senate after the House passed a foreign aid authorization bill that eliminated some of the outmoded provisions and gave the administration more flexibility in managing the program. This time around, with a strong push from the White House, foreign aid might get the overhaul that is long overdue.