CONGRESS -- or at least the House -- is behaving once again like the family that cuts its UGF contribution to save money for gasoline and movies. The foreign aid bills are in trouble. Perhaps you will reply that foreign aid bills are always in trouble, and that is their nature. True; but this year the trouble is deeper than usual.
The annual foreign aid appropriations bill for the current fiscal year has not yet been passed. The aid programs are limping along under a continuing resolution. This bill's particular misfortune was to get caught in a long quarrel that wasn't resolved until late February, when it then became a victim of President Carter's newly refreshed determination to balance the budget.
More ominously, the House has refused to authorize the full American contribution for the Interamerican, Asian and African development banks. They are an extremely efficient way to deliver a crucial kind of aid to the parts of the world that need it most. The rich countries negotiate formulas, among themselves, for fair shares of support. American dollars go much further because they are matched by aid from other developed countries. But leadership works both ways, and if the United States begins to fall behind its agreed contributions, the other donors may well be tempted to follow.
The House has insisted, in this case, on cutting the authorization 10 percent below the negotiated formula. While it's true that Congress has often failed to appropriate the full authorizations, it would be the first time that Congress has refused even to authorize the full amount. That's a bad precedent. But, after a long struggle, the House-Senate conference finally, reluctantly, accepted the adamant House position. As it ended, the conference chairman, Rep. Henry Reuss, said, "Never have 11 conferees been so unhappy about the fruits of their conference."
A group of congressmen led by Rep. John J. Cavanaugh wants to try to reverse this cut when the conference report comes to the House floor. But the administration has decided to take what it can get in this bill and come back next year for the rest. The House has already voted on the question twice. A do-or-die battle risks postponement of the whole bill until next year, when it would collide with other foreign aid commitments standing in line behind it. The administration is probably right, as a practical matter, to accept for the present this damaged compromise. But certainly Mr. Cavanaugh is right in saying that it represents significant erosion to a noble purpose.