Washington — Top administration officials were on the defensive this week as they attempted to explain the proposed $8.9 billion American aid program for Central America.
Skeptical senators and congressmen seemed to place El Salvador near the top of their list of concerns about American aid to a variety of countries.
In several hearings, they raised the usual questions about human rights abuses in El Salvador and the lack of progress toward negotiations.
But a new dimension was added to the debate by reports that some United States aid funds for El Salvador had been mismanaged or diverted.
Officials at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) responded that reports on mismanagement had derived for the most part from internal audits commissioned by USAID itself. The audits were aimed at improving the situation, officials said. In most cases, they contended, steps had already been taken to correct abuses.
The announcement on Tuesday by the leftist-led Sandinista government of Nicaragua that it was calling for elections on Nov. 4 caused only a brief flurry of interest here because, at first glance, it did not appear to bring the parties in the Central American conflict closer to any kind of negotiated settlement.
The State Department issued a statement saying that the announcement appeared to be ''one step toward meeting the electoral portion of the commitments the Sandinistas made to the Organization of American States 41/2 years ago.''
After extending a cautious word of welcome for that ''one step,'' the State Department made what amounted to a critique.
It said that many important questions remain. It noted that it was uncertain what steps would be taken to ensure a free press and equal access to the news media for the election, whether opposition parties would be allowed to function effectively, and who would be included among those eligible to run for office.
At this writing, it appeared that at least one of Nicaragua's prominent opposition leaders - Eden Pastora Gomez, a revolutionary hero now leading dissident fighters - would be barred from the upcoming election.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, Secretary of State George P. Shultz was asked about the Nicaraguan election announcement.
He responded that the Nicaraguan government was resisted by its own people and that it had ''betrayed its own revolution.''
Mr. Shultz expressed hope for a fair election but noted with skepticism that Sandinistas had lowered the voting age to 16. This would bring some of the Sandinistas' most zealous young supporters into the ranks of the voters.
Part of the congressional skepticism toward the administration's Central America policies derives from unhappiness with those policies among constituents.
Recent polls have shown considerable opposition to increased military aid to El Salvador.
Asked in a Washington Post/ABC telephone poll in January whether they approved or disapproved of the US being involved in trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, 55 percent of those polled disapproved.
The latest issue in the ongoing debate here has to do with whether the aid already sent to Central America has been used effectively and whether increased aid can be handled with efficiency.
In a report prepared for the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs on Tuesday, Jay F. Morris, the acting USAID administrator, argued that the proposed new aid program was ''both feasible and essential.''
Mr. Morris acknowledged that ''serious deficiencies'' do exist in the implementation and management capacities of Central American governments. But he contended that steps were being taken to minimize these problems as the aid level rises.
First, Morris said, the largest part of the aid would go to private-sector rather than government programs. Second, he said, the US will provide substantial technical assistance and training for government officials in order to streamline operations and increase efficiency. Finally, he said, policy reforms would be pursued to ensure the effective use of US funds.
Critics disagree strongly with Morris's assessment. Robert S. Leiken, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of a new book on Central America, argues that the misuse of American aid funds by Central American government officials is not a matter of occasional or exceptional behavior but is a result of the way in which governing elites operate in that part of the world.
The solutions being offered must go beyond monitoring or technical assistance and address changes in the Central American systems, Mr. Leiken says.
In testimony prepared for an appearance Wednesday before the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs, Leiken argued that the increased military aid being proposed for Central America would serve to widen the war.
He charged that when it comes to the economy of El Salvador, the Salvadorean landed and financial elite still holds great power and continues to block land reform and ''the reallocation of resources.''
The elite, Leiken stated, ''siphons off the wealth of the country and external aid into American and Swiss bank accounts.''