Foreign Aid on Chopping Block as Lawmakers Confront Deficit
Business + Economy

Foreign Aid on Chopping Block as Lawmakers Confront Deficit

With a laser focus on the midterm elections, Congress is targeting cuts in foreign aid in order to free up money for domestic spending. While international programs are a familiar and inviting target, the $4 billion in cuts would do little to repair the budget but could damage U.S. efforts to fight AIDS overseas or help develop countries like Haiti and Afghanistan.

"It's an election year, it’s a tough fiscal and budget environment for the U.S. government overall, and for Congress in particular," said Todd Shelton, senior director for public policy at InterAction, an umbrella organization representing overseas aid groups. "We certainly appreciate the challenge that’s ahead of them. But if that cut is then passed on disproportionately to this very, very small part of the federal budget, which provides lifesaving humanitarian programs, among other things, that would be very troubling."

President Obama requested about $59 billion, more than twice what was spent 10 years ago. The money would be distributed to countries all over the world and fund the Foreign Service, political and military aid to allies, and global health and development. The Senate Budget Committee endorsed about $55 billion, the only net cut in Obama's budget request. (That's about the same as last year's total, assuming that a pending war spending bill that would provide some money for foreign affairs becomes law.) The House is expected to cut further. Removing the money from foreign aid allows legislators to shift it elsewhere while remaining under an overall spending cap. That $4 billion makes up roughly 7 percent of the foreign aid budget, but compared to a spending cap of $1.12 trillion, it's not even a rounding error.

Still, these billions can add up. Sending funds overseas is not always popular, particularly when money is tight. Americans overwhelmingly pick foreign aid as the top source for budget cuts, even though these programs make up only 1.4 percent of the budget, according to an April Economist/YouGov poll. In past years, aid supporters like Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., have stepped in to protect the money. But since Congress won't finalize an official budget this year, they may not have that chance.

An unusual range of interests are making several arguments for full funding. Aid and development organizations say that the programs dovetail with Obama's foreign policy philosophy on engagement and that the administration is in danger of backsliding on successes like the global AIDS plan begun under President Bush.

The U.S. Global Leadership Campaign has marshaled groups like corporate executives and all living former secretaries of state to adopt the argument, advanced by Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that diplomacy and development should be equal partners with defense in war zones and around the world. In one letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, scrawled a warning in pen above his signature: "The more significant the cuts, the longer military operations will take, and the more and more lives are at risk!"

But the national security argument hasn't taken hold this time, even though Obama exempted these accounts from his own proposed spending freeze. It's an influential Democrat leading the way on cuts: Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "The rationale is the extraordinary increases they've had leading up to this," Conrad said. (While this spending has crept up, most of the increase has gone to front line states like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

Republicans, who are hammering Democrats on the deficit and failure to produce a budget aren't likely to support anything that looks like an increase in spending. "We should have a hard freeze at last year's figures," said Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the top Republican on the budget committee and the spending panel that oversees foreign aid. Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the subcommittee that provides money to the state department and for foreign operations, said that the focus would shift to accounting better for the money she does control. “Foreign aid is a critical part of our national security strategy," she said. "At this time of great domestic need and budget deficits, we will focus more strongly than ever on accountability in our foreign assistance, and ensuring that U.S. taxpayer dollars are achieving their intended purpose.” She's already announced that she plans to strip $3.9 billion from economic and development funding for Afghanistan, in part in response to corruption allegations there.