Congress tightens foreign-aid screws

Philippine President Corazon Aquino, whose country has a $26 billion foreign debt, stands before a joint session of Congress today with hat in hand. Some lawmakers are pushing legislation that would give her government an additional $200 million in aid on top of the $386 million the Philippines has already received this year. But they have run into stiff opposition from colleagues who face politically unpalatable budget choices as they struggle to rope the deficit within the limits set by the Gramm-Rudman balanced-budget act.

``I go home and see farmer's wives cry in front of me,'' says Rep. David R. Obey (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which sets aside the money for foreign aid programs. ``Don't tell me about the Philippines.''

The Philippines have fared better than some countries. Never a popular item to begin with, the entire foreign aid budget is being squeezed for the coming fiscal year as never before in the Reagan presidency.

Last year, Congress forced President Reagan to hold the line on ``security'' aid to friendly foreign countries, freezing this year's spending levels to those of last year.

Gramm-Rudman cuts in March then lopped slightly more than 4 percent off the foreign aid budget.

Now, Congress seems ready to force the administration to make sharp cuts in the aid programs that have been used to boost the economic and military fortunes of US allies.

The White House opposes the foreign aid spending bill being fashioned in Congress, and Mr. Reagan has threatened to veto it.

But such threats have been to no avail. The House Appropriations Committee, which determines funding levels for all government programs, approved a $570 billion fiscal 1987 spending bill this week that set $12.9 billion aside for foreign aid programs -- a $1.4 billion drop from this year's level.

Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee is finishing work on a spending bill that would permit slightly more than $13 billion to be spent on foreign aid.

The administration asked that $15.5 billion be set aside in fiscal 1987 for the foreign aid program, which includes multilateral economic assistance, bilateral assistance, military aid, and funds for the Export-Import Bank.

For many nations, the cuts will be more acute than the 13 percent funding drop would imply, because Congress has sheltered several politically popular countries and programs from the budgetary ax. For example, Egypt and Israel are slated to get more than $5 billion in aid next year.

Pakistan and Northern Ireland have been similarly exempted for any reductions in assistance. As a result, unprotected countries will find their aid allocations cut by as much as 41 percent.

``Those other countries will go where they can get it, and that's the Soviet Union,'' says Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, who argues against earmarking individual countries for special protection from cuts.

In the first five years of his presidency Ronald Reagan was able to persuade Congress to accept sizable increases in aid to countries friendly with the United States, just as he was able to persuade lawmakers to sign onto massive defense increases.

The administration's fiscal 1987 requests would have hiked military grants by more than 800 percent since 1981, mostly for Egypt and Israel, and nearly doubled economic loans and grants over the same period.

But lawmakers have found themselves embroiled in a zero-sum game as they attempt to set next year's spending levels for the federal government, while keeping the budget deficit within the boundaries mandated by Gramm-Rudman. Like the defense buildup, increases in foreign aid have been among the first casualties in this new era of federal parsimony. ``Foreign aid is never popular with voters,'' says Senator Kassebaum, and Gramm-Rudman ``has made it less so.''

Many members of Congress believe that Mrs. Aquino's visit will help boost her image and generate some enthusiasm for her fragile coalition government. Yet even supporters of increased Philippines aid doubt it will overcome congressional reluctance to make additional room in the budget for more foreign aid.

``We'd like to give her as much as we can,'' says House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Dante B. Fascell (D) of Florida. ``But how much do we have give?''

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