Should the United States give aid to China? Given America's trade imbalance with China, few politicians think it's a good idea.
That's why a hearing over $4 million that the U.S. Agency for International Development intends to spend on environmental programs in China drew such heat on Capitol Hill this week.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers lined up at a House hearing on Tuesday to denounce the program as "an insult to the American taxpayer" that would pour "U.S. taxpayer dollars down the toilet."
That sort of open derision is very much in keeping with the political reception foreign aid spending is receiving nowadays. At a time when all types of federal spending is being questioned — and potentially facing large cuts, foreign aid is particularly vulnerable.
At last Saturday's GOP presidential debate, several candidates suggested they would slash such spending.
"The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is going to start at zero dollars, and then we'll have a conversation," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said, although his campaign made clear he would exempt Israel.
Proponents of foreign aid spending warn that cuts to the relatively modest amounts of money the U.S. spends overseas for diplomatic, military and humanitarian purposes could cause harm to American interests abroad. But, given the current political and budgetary environments, they recognize that they face an uphill battle making that case.
"This is the 98-pound weakling of the federal budget," says Gordon Adams, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at American University. "The idea that we give away something to other countries when we ought to be spending it on ourselves, which is the public view, has been around forever."
Polls consistently show that the public believes foreign aid takes up a far greater share of federal spending than it actually does – which is less than 1 percent.
A CNN/ORC poll conducted earlier this year suggested that most Americans believe foreign aid makes up at least 10 percent of the budget. One in five thought it represents 30 percent of total government spending.
"Americans have consistently overestimated the amount of money that goes to foreign aid," agrees Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
That leaves foreign aid spending politically vulnerable. It's easy to cut something that people believe is already getting too much. Especially when foreign aid enjoys less of a domestic constituency than, say, Medicare or farm subsidies.
"The levels of cuts to the foreign assistance budgets are so significant that even programs that are high priorities are bound to get cut," says Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
On The Chopping Block
Bensahel points out that cuts to foreign assistance made up a disproportionate share of the budget reductions that averted a government shutdown last April.
"It was reduced by 17 percent at a time when the defense budget in that same bill received an increase of $5 billion," she says.
Something similar might be about to happen. For the current fiscal year, a stand-alone bill to fund foreign aid and State Department operations appears to be "dead," as one Senate aide says.
Foreign aid spending is therefore likely to be wrapped up in an omnibus spending package, which could leave it particularly vulnerable. If foreign aid is in the same bucket as more popular programs, it will be that much easier to cut, says Adams, the AU professor. Every dollar taken out of foreign aid will be seen as a dollar that doesn't have to be cut from defense or other priorities.
But because foreign aid is so much smaller, it will feel the pinch.
"In some budgets — transportation or Department of Defense — a cut of $5 or $6 billion is something you sneeze at," says Jay Knott, executive vice president of Abt Associates, an international development company based in Massachusetts. "But in the context of foreign aid, that's a major game changer."
No Momentum For Bill
Congressional debate about foreign aid this year has not turned mainly on money — although the Senate wants to cut $6 billion from the Obama administration's request of $60 billion in total spending for foreign aid and State Department operations, while the House would cut $5 billion more.
Instead, the Senate bill has been held up because of proposals to use it as a vehicle to impose further sanctions on Iran and to cut certain programs to punish Palestine for its bid for United Nations membership.
The fact that some foreign aid dollars go to countries that are considered unreliable allies — such as Pakistan — leaves many members of Congress skeptical about continued funding.
Spending Dollars At Home
But not all foreign aid goes directly to other countries. Much of the budget is devoted to specific programs that are meant to offer help in areas such as disaster assistance, food programs and health matters such as malaria and AIDS.
Lobbyists are trying to make the case on Capitol Hill that a considerable percentage of foreign aid spending — as high as 75 percent for some programs — actually stays in the United States in the form of food orders or payments to contractors.
"The concept that most of those dollars pays Americans or buys American things has never sunk in," Adams says.
The Value Of Aid
For that reason, foreign aid boosters are trying hard to make the argument that cutting a few extra billion from their favored programs will do little to erase the enormous federal deficit while causing great harm to American foreign policy.
Aid programs give U.S. diplomats leverage with allies, while also offering public relations benefits from helping average people in other countries cope with hunger and health problems, says Joseph Parent, a political scientist at the University of Miami.
At the House hearing on Tuesday, Nisha Desai Biswal, USAID's assistant administrator for Asia, sought to defend her agency's programs in China. She point out that the money goes not to the Chinese government but to Tibetan communities and programs bolstering health, legal reform and environmental concerns.
She defended the $4 million for environmental programs by pointing out that a considerable share of pollution in California and mercury elsewhere comes from Chinese coal-fired power plants. "USAID programs work to reduce these harmful emissions, which are having an impact on our own shores," Biswal said.
Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee weren't buying it. "What has been proposed here, essentially, is that we borrow money from China to give back to China to fix its own domestic problems," said Don Manzullo, an Illinois Republican who chairs the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.
"This particular (program), while small in the grand scheme of things, is emblematic of the dysfunction in American's foreign aid spending priorities," Manzullo said.