The amount of money available for U.S. foreign aid programs this year -- $13.7 billion -- is only 1 percent of the total federal budget. But it looms larger as a portent of battles between the Clinton administration and the new Republican-controlled Congress about how U.S. tax revenue should be spent.
In fact, the fiscal 1996 foreign aid budget request that the administration will send to Capitol Hill in February or March is likely to become one of the first tests of what the Republicans mean when they talk of getting government out of areas where they think it does not belong.
"Our next budget proposal will subject foreign aid to the most intense scrutiny and debate since Harry Truman started the whole thing with the Marshall Plan following World War II," J. Brian Atwood, administrator of the Agency for International Development (AID), said in an interview last week.
Prompting his comment was the warning issued a few days earlier by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms put "the so-called foreign aid program" at the top of the list of issues that he wants the committee to look at closely.
"The foreign aid program has spent an estimated $2 trillion of the American taxpayers' money, much of it going down foreign rat holes, to countries that constantly oppose us in the United Nations, and many which reject concepts of freedom," Helms charged. "We must stop this stupid business of giving away the taxpayers' money willy-nilly."
"It is no surprise where Senator Helms is coming from," Atwood said. "It's his publicly stated position that if he could, he'd do away with all foreign aid.
"But if he can't -- and I believe that his own Republican Party won't let him do that -- then we must seek ways to work with him to fashion an aid program that will meet the demand for budgetary austerity and still help to achieve important U.S. foreign policy goals."
Aides to Helms acknowledge that some of the foreign aid program's biggest and hardiest perennials will not be changing. In particular, they stress, the interests promoted by the politically potent Israeli lobby -- the $3 billion earmarked annually for Israel ($1.8 billion in military assistance and $1.2 billion in economic aid) and the $2.1 billion for Egypt ($1.3 billion military and $800 million economic) -- won't be touched.
When smaller amounts for Jordan and the Gaza Strip are added, the total amount of aid money devoted to maintaining Israel's strength and promoting the associated Middle East peace process is about $6 billion, or almost half of the aid budget.
Other things unlikely to undergo significant change are what one Helms aide calls the "apple pie and mother kind of programs" such as emergency humanitarian disaster relief (about $170 million) and contributions of about $100 million annually to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Similarly, the aide said, despite Helms's reputation for hostility to aid, he supports such concepts as the Peace Corps and help to refugees displaced by war or famine.
Beyond that, however, there doesn't seem to be much common ground between Helms and the administration. The Helms people say that President Clinton's high-priority program to help Russia and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union achieve democracy and economic stability will undergo greater scrutiny to ensure that the funds, $800 million, don't wind up being wasted or lining the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats.
Similarly, congressional staff members say, Helms wants to swing an ax at organizations that rely on U.S. aid but that he regards as hotbeds of socialist experimentation or anti-Americanism. These include international lending institutions like the World Bank, such United Nations activities as peacekeeping and Third World development, and international population programs that do not follow strict antiabortion policies.
"We are giving $120 million a year to the U.N. Development Fund, which turns around and diverts some of that money to countries like Iran and Libya," said a member of Helms's staff who declined to be identified. "The State Department has a $75 million voluntary peacekeeping account, which is nothing more than a slush fund to help maintain what the senator regards as very dubious involvements in places like Haiti. These are the programs that he feels need to be scrutinized, reshaped and, if necessary, eliminated." But, the aide added, even more than specific programs, Helms intends to take a hard look at the philosophy driving the Clinton administration's approach to aid.
"Brian Atwood has come up with a lot of cutesy names that are supposed to represent reform," the staff member said. "But as far as we can see, these are just disguises for programs that are no different from what they were doing 10 and 20 years ago. If programs like that come to the Hill, they will be dead on arrival."
That is a reference to Atwood's efforts over the past two years to restructure AID. He has sought to shed the agency's old reputation for fraud and mismanagement and make it able to function more effectively in an age of foreign policy deemphasis, budgetary austerity and administration strictures about "reinventing government."
Controversial plans include cutting the staff by 5.5 percent and closing a number of AID's overseas missions. They also have meant moving away from AID's country-by-country approach to dispensing aid to a new concept that Atwood calls "sustainable development." He defines that as concentrating on programs "that are fewer in number but that have the potential to make a real impact on a country's development and that the country has the ability to keep going after the United States ends its involvement."
AID has identified four areas upon which to concentrate its principal resources and efforts because, as Atwood said, "they involve problems of global scope that are in the interest of the United States to resolve." The four areas are population and health, environment, economic growth and promotion of democracy.
These are what the Helms aide dismisses as "cutesy names" for old programs. The aide asked rhetorically: "What do they mean by 'population' as an element of 'sustainable growth'? It just means that they're hellbent on giving a condom to every man and woman in the Third World. They've been trying to do that sort of thing for years and have nothing to show for it."
"Jesse Helms believes in aid, but he thinks it should go primarily to organizations like the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corp., organizations that help other countries, but also help the American taxpayer by promoting trade and commerce," another Helms assistant said. "That's what Japan does. It claims to spend a lot on foreign aid. But it's really export promotion.
"What we want to do is get away from the old practice of starting every year with a proposal to spend about $15 billion on aid and then work down from there," he continued.
"Instead we should work up from zero. We should first take care of the necessities like Ex-Im and OPIC and security considerations like aid to Israel. Then we should stop and ask, can we afford the luxury of spending more to fund the World Bank or U.N. peacekeeping operations? If there's room for some additional development assistance, it should go into one pot, and you tell the administration: Here's what's left. Subject to oversight by Congress, you decide your priorities and what you want to do with it. You say you want flexibility. Here it is."
Whether it will work that way will not become clear until the new Congress convenes. Then Helms will learn whether the Republican majority is willing to rubber-stamp his conservative outlook or whether he will have to contend with dissenters who will join with the Democrats.
Atwood said he believes the latter will happen with greater frequency than Helms and other Republican conservatives expect. "In all that we've done over the past two years to revamp the aid program, I've told my people to subject their plans and ideas to 'the mother's test.' I said, 'Could you look your mother in the eye and tell her that it's in the U.S. national interest?' If we have programs that can pass that test, I believe they can win a majority of both houses of Congress."
The problem for Atwood may be that when the administration's aid request goes to Congress, the person scrutinizing it most closely will not be a mother. Instead, it will be Helms, who thinks that what the foreign aid program needs is a stern father figure.