America's foreign aid program is appearing before Congress this week very much in the role of the title character from "Perils of Pauline," but in this case not even its friends seem inclined to untie it from the railroad tracks.
Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that is writing the first version of the foreign assistance appropriation bill for the coming fiscal year. He is generally a staunch supporter of foreign assistance, especially that intended to help the economically disadvantaged, but he has announced his intention of sending a bill to the full Committee that could cut military and development assistance -- with the sole exceptions of aid to Israel and Egypt -- substantially below last year's appropriated levels.
Obey is not the only traditional supporter of foreign assistance favoring deep reductions. He has been joined by Rep. William Gray (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, who has just finished writing a resolution that could result in foreign assistance expenditures' being cut almost 50 percent for countries other than Israel, Egypt, and those where we have access to military facilities.
On the more conservative side, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) did not defend the administration request during floor debate on the Senate budget resolution, reluctantly accepting deep cuts that had been largely engineered by the bipartisan team of Budget Chairman Sen. Pete Domenici, and his ranking Democratic member, Sen. Lawton Chiles of Florida.
What's going on? It would be a mistake to interpret these events as a widespread liberal revolt against foreign aid in itself. Obey is angry over the Reagan administration's proposed cuts in domestic programs he has supported. Since overall foreign assistance has increased during the Reagan administration (military aid is up 81 percent and the economic support fund is up 61.2 percent since 1981), he is trying to hold the line on domestic cuts, force the administration to admit that cuts need to be made in other parts of the budget, and show that taxes will have to be increased. Neither is there a conservative revolt. Sen. Lugar and others, including Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), support various aspects of foreign assistance.
The stark truth is that foreign assistance has flunked a major political test. The rising foreign aid levels during the Reagan administration, especially security, aid but to a lesser extent economic aid, had come to be taken for granted. This year, with the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget straitjacket in place for the first time, foreign assistance proved to be very low on the list of almost everyone's political priorities. What has been demonstrated is that foreign aid had enough support to continue limping along providing that there were no tradeoffs. Now that there are, under Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, foreign aid is being drastically slashed with hardly a peep from anyone in Congress.
To be sure, some resistance to the cuts is being exerted by private organizations. And belatedly, Secretary of State George Shultz has jumped into the fray, but it is not clear that this will make any difference. This year the budget and appropriations processes in Congress are unique in that they show program tradeoffs very clearly, and few members of Congress, liberal or conservative, were willing to rescue international programs at the expense of domestic programs or the defense budget. This should be sobering news indeed to the supporters of military and economic assistance who have formed an alliance of convenience that has kept the program going for all these years.
Foreign aid has long been a controversial item. But now its efficacy and worth are being reevaluated from every point on the political spectrum. Such reevaluation is warranted, but it will require clear-headed examination in as nonpartisan an atmosphere as possible. The allocation of whatever foreign aid remains could well determine the fate of United Nations humanitarian programs, the Baker Plan, U.S. base rights in foreign countries, and multilateral aid to drought-stricken Africa.
For years those diverse programs which have been aggregated under the umbrella title of "foreign aid" have been generally considered to be an important part of U.S. foreign policy, especially toward the Third World. At the House subcommittee markup and during the House-Senate budget conference, we may witness the end of this era, with unknown consequences for Third World countries as well as our relationships with the other donors -- Western Europe, Canada and Japan. A bit of history is being made.