- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Seeking to shut off federal aid going to foreign countries that “don’t like us,” a Texas Republican congressman said Wednesday that lawmakers should vote separately on funding for every foreign nation receiving taxpayer money.

With foreign aid a major sticking point in the budget battles raging on Capitol Hill, Rep. Ted Poe proposed new House rules to hold country-by-country votes, saying it would end the current system where overall foreign aid levels are decided essentially in one fell swoop. He said splitting each country’s funding into its own bill will make members of Congress think more carefully about which countries deserve money, while adding transparency and accountability to the process.

“It changes House rules so members are able to vote on each country one at a time,” he said during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that explored U.S. foreign assistance. “For every dollar handed out, we can ask, ‘How does this further the interest of the United States? If a country can justify that it is critical to U.S. interests, then it will pass. If not, then it won’t.”

After the November election, the push to reduce spending on foreign aid has gained steam on Capitol Hill. Many of the same tea party-backed lawmakers who helped Republicans seize control of the House are pressuring leaders to cut spending more than they’ve offered, and are skeptical of foreign aid and programs, which they suggest are often riddled with waste and fraud.

Democrats have fought back, saying foreign-aid spending saves money over the long haul. On Wednesday, they pointed to testimony from Gen. David H. Petreaus, who told lawmakers that funding the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will be key to the successful transition from combat to civilian forces after troops begin to leave Afghanistan, as is scheduled later this year.

“This category is really a national security funding issue, not just an issue of foreign assistance or some other element,” Gen. Petreaus told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

Foreign assistance totaled $39.4 billion in 2010, or about 1 percent of the total federal spending. It was the highest level of U.S. foreign assistance since 1985, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

USAID and the State Department, as the primary administrators of U.S. foreign assistance, doled out $10.38 billion in security-related assistance; $10.93 billion for health, education, and social welfare programs; $3.64 billion for governance programs; $5.21 billion for economic growth activities; and $4.98 billion in humanitarian assistance. Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan, Egypt and Haiti were the top recipients.

Mr. Poe offered his rules-change legislation a day after House lawmakers passed a three-week spending bill Monday that cut $4.6 billion from 2010 spending and rescinded another $1.4 billion in unspent money from prior years. The Senate is expected to pass the proposal and the White House has expressed support for the deal, which would delay a government shutdown by three weeks.

But the short-term agreement didn’t brighten the mood in Washington, where the growing frustration between lawmakers over federal spending spilled over into floor speeches and committee hearings. Members traded rhetorical bombs and blame for running up deficits and the national debt, which jumped to $14.23 trillion on Tuesday.

Rep. Donald A. Manzullo aimed some of his frustration at USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, demanding to know why the agency had awarded a New York City-based company a $100,000 grant to develop a fuel-cell-powered “E-Bike.”

“Why is the U.S. taxpayer buying a solar-powered bicycle? How is that going to help out the world?” the Illinois Republican barked, interrupting Mr. Shah’s explanation that the grants were designed to provide seed money for businesses to develop new technologies. “Don’t use the word investment, use the word spent or paid! … This is a waste of taxpayer dollars and the sooner you guys wake up and understand that, the better off you are going to be in taking limited resources and using them for a better purpose.”

The exchange came during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing where Mr. Shah and Daniel Y. Yohannes of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) testified about President Obama’s 2012 budget request to raise funding for the State Department, USAID and other international programs from $49.3 billion to $50.9 billion.

The two men said the spending proposals offered by Republicans would be “devastating” to their efforts abroad. Under the House proposal for this fiscal year, USAID would lose $120.9 million and MCC would lose $315 million compared with 2010, according to data from the House Appropriations Committee.

Democrats on the panel defended the president’s plan, saying the upfront investment helps avoid steeper costs over the long haul.

“The truth is that addressing hunger, disease and human misery abroad is a cost-effective way of making America safer at home,” said Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. Poe floated his proposal at the end of the hearing, pointing out that Venezuela, Cuba, China and Russia are receiving some foreign assistance.

“Most of these countries don’t even like us,” he told his colleagues. “The time has come for these countries to stand or fall on their own” with individual votes.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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