Rep. Spencer Bachus, a diehard Republican from Alabama's most diehard Republican district, is known around Capitol Hill as a conservative's conservative. His office is plastered with plaques from tax-cutting and budget-cutting groups: the Tax Fighter Award, the Sound Money Award, the Spirit of Enterprise Award. He has crusaded against abortion, grilled Clinton administration officials about Whitewater and even trashed the metric system.
But now Bachus is on a new crusade, an unabashedly liberal mission fueled by fiery liberal rhetoric that has some of his right-wing supporters wondering aloud if aliens have occupied his body. Bachus has become the unlikely Sally Struthers of the Third World debt crisis, begging America to forgive its loans to 42 nations he has never even seen, spreading the word that Americans can help 700 million of the poorest of the world's poor for just $1.20 a year from each American.
Just six months after he first learned about the issue, Bachus has already helped persuade the Clinton administration to triple its budget request for foreign debt relief; last week, after the president announced plans to forgive all direct American loans to eligible nations, Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers called Bachus to say his arguments had won the day. His campaign is attracting converts in the GOP-controlled Congress as well, building momentum for a U.S. commitment to loan forgiveness that many economists believe would have a huge impact on famine, disease and development in sub-Saharan Africa and other pockets of abject poverty.
For Bachus, 51, a plainspoken Baptist who chairs the Banking Committee's little-noticed domestic and international monetary policy subcommittee, loan forgiveness is a religious thing. It is partly about the brotherhood of man, the moral injustice of a world where America spends $4,000 a year on health care for each of its citizens while Ethiopia spends about $3.
And it is partly about the coming of the millennium, which spiritual leaders such as the pope and Billy Graham have linked to the biblical account of Jubilee, the awakening every 50 years when slaves are to be freed and debts erased.
And so, as the Anniston Star recently editorialized, "if you didn't know any better, you'd think [Bachus] was some wild-eyed liberal." Last month, Oxfam America gave him and arch-liberal Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) awards for their work; in addition, he held a joint news conference on the issue with left-wing rocker Bono, who wore gold hoop earrings and a black shirt open to his chest as he praised Bachus for his passion.
Bachus also sent earnest letters to the other 434 members of the House, urging them to "please help 700 million of your brothers and sisters in the poorest countries," enclosing $1.20 of his own money in every envelope--the amount Clinton's new three-year, $970 million budget request would cost the average American every year. "It's the cost of an ice cream cone," Bachus wrote. "It's the cost of a gallon of gas. It's the cost of a Sunday paper."
This is not, to put it mildly, the kind of appeal expected from Bachus in his down-home Birmingham area district, where Republican presidential candidate Robert J. Dole crushed Clinton by a 64 to 27 margin in 1996. Bachus, a former state senator and state GOP chairman, was elected in 1992 as a fiscal and social conservative; during his campaign, he bashed his opponent for opposing tough sanctions against Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who had been involved in a gay sex scandal. In Washington, he has been an enthusiastic supporter of the "Contract With America," the Clinton impeachment and the $792 billion GOP tax cut plan. He once filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Earl F. Hilliard (D-Ala.), a black liberal who promptly dubbed him "a Klansman in a suit."
But this spring, a family friend who volunteers for Bread for the World suggested that Bachus look into loan forgiveness. Bachus, who has never visited the developing world, had no idea what she meant; he thought it might have something to do with a bankruptcy bill. But the more he read about countries where 30,000 people die each day from starvation or preventable disease, and the more he learned about the fast-growing Jubilee 2000 campaign to free those countries from more than $100 billion in paper debts, the more he began to feel that this is why he was sent to Congress.
"The Bible says it is more blessed to give than to receive," says Bachus, a contractor's son who attended Auburn University and the University of Alabama law school. "We have so much, and these countries have so little. We're all members of the human race, you know? We can make such a huge difference in the world, and for such a minuscule amount of money."
In recent years, international pressure has mounted for loan forgiveness, with many economists arguing that without it, Third World countries will be unable to fight diseases such as AIDS or malaria, educate their people or clean up pollution. So far, Britain, Canada and Germany have taken the lead among G-7 nations, with France and Italy making modest contributions; despite supportive rhetoric at a recent G-7 summit in Cologne, Germany, the United States has yet to contribute a penny.
But that seems likely to change this year, and Bachus is leading the charge, while shepherding a $970 million debt relief bill through his subcommittee. Because the real value of outstanding loans to poor countries is far less than their face value, the bill would erase almost all the debt owed directly to the United States, plus the American share of International Monetary Fund loans. It now has more than 100 co-sponsors, including Barney Frank, who says Bachus has been "terrific" about making the human case for loan forgiveness.
"He's put the issue onto a whole new plane," says Oxfam America president Raymond Offenheiser. "He's made this into a moral question. He's speaking with a prophetic voice."
Bachus says that he's just responding to what he's read, that anyone who really studied the plight of the world's have-nots would launch a similar crusade. The life expectancy in the indebted countries is about 51 years; in the G-7 countries, it's 78 years. In sub-Saharan Africa, three of every 15 children will die before their fifth birthday; four others will suffer from malnutrition. Some things, Bachus says, are more important than spending caps.
But foreign aid has been a tough sell on Capitol Hill since the end of the Cold War, with many lawmakers dismissing humanitarian assistance as an inevitable waste of time and money, especially in areas where the much-maligned IMF is involved. So with Congress struggling mightily to keep its budget under strict spending caps, foreign debt relief will face an uphill battle. And back in Birmingham, conservative talk show hosts have accused Baucus of consorting with communists over the last six months, speculating that he must have been abducted by aliens.
"It's very disappointing to hear someone like Spencer Bachus talk like that," said Aaron Taylor, a spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste, which has honored Bachus in the past. "There are very few things more important than spending caps."
Last month, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Bachus joined a panel on the issue with Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs and Bono, both of whom had met with the pope the day before. Sachs opened with an explanation of technical issues. Bono closed with a discussion of public relations issues; "Sometimes it helps to be an exotic creature," he joked. But it was Bachus who captivated the crowd.
"I believe the American people to be loving and compassionate," he said softly. "I believe that if they knew about the conditions in your countries, they'd say: Forgive the debt! But they don't know. They know who's the No. 1 football team. They know who won the fight in Las Vegas. But they don't know what you're going through. I didn't even know."
Owing Uncle Sam
Amount of long-term debt owed to the United States
These are the 20 heavily indebted poor countries that owe the most to the U.S. government.
Congo $2.1 BILLION
Sudan $1.2 BILLION
Somalia $431 MILLION
Liberia $333 MILLION
Ivory Coast $332 MILLION
Zambia $278 MILLION
Vietnam $136 MILLION
Guinea $111 MILLION
Yemen $102 MILLION
Nicaragua $98 MILLION
Ethiopia $90 MILLION
Honduras $89 MILLION
Kenya $87 MILLION
Bolivia $77 MILLION
Sierra Leone $54 MILLION
Congo Republic $58 MILLION
Cameroon $57 MILLION
Mozambique $49 MILLION
Angola $35 MILLION
Madagascar $33 MILLION
SOURCES: Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), Congressional Research Service