Flies in foreign-aid ointment

The more Congress tinkers with foreign aid, the worse it gets. This is not a case of "if it's not broke, don't fix it." This is a case of "it needs to be fixed, but nothing works."

What Congress has done is to create a system under which selected members can second-guess not only the administration but also the rest of Congress. The specially empowered members are those on the foreign relations and appropriations committees in the House and Senate. By law, the administration must notify these committees before it shifts money from one use or country to another. If it doesn't hear from any of the committees or members within 15 days, it goes ahead with whatever it proposed. But if any member files an objection, the proposed change is dead in its tracks. The law doesn't require this. The administration acquiesces because it has learned through bitter experience not to rile members of Congress.

*Rep. Sonny Callahan (R) of Alabama is upset over the treatment of an American citizen in Ecuador charged with laundering drug money. Result: Ecuador doesn't get $2 million for population control.

*Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina is upset over Haitian treatment of a US-owned rice company. Result: Haiti doesn't get $30 million for agricultural and other development.

*Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire is upset over Sierra Leone (he doesn't say why). Result: The UN is not getting $96 million for peacekeeping.

There are many more such objections from members of both parties - 238 in all in 1999. Some are withdrawn; some are not.

There are several things wrong with this system.

The system empowers a single member to block the expenditure of funds that the entire Congress appropriated. The member may have tried and failed to block these funds during the appropriations process. This gives him/her a second chance, uncontestable by those who would like to see the funds used.

The system enmeshes Congress further in the morass of micromanaging programs. This takes time away from doing what Congress does best and what Congress was meant to do - consider policy. By requiring more decisions from members of Congress, it increases the influence of unelected staff responsible to no one but the member who hired them and who usually signs anything they put in front of him. Some staff members have ideological agendas of their own which aren't congruent with the views of either Congress as a whole or the administration.

The system paralyzes foreign aid as an instrument of foreign policy. There is legitimate argument over whether the nation ought to have a foreign aid program at all; but as long as we do, we ought to give it a chance to work. From the beginning of foreign aid more than 50 years ago, there has been a conflict between Congress, which looks at policy, and the administration, which has to translate policy into action. Conditions change. What looks like a good idea when presented to, and approved by, Congress may not look so good a year later. New needs arise.

Administrators want more flexibility. Congress thinks, with reason, that administrators use flexibility to thwart congressional intentions. The result is mutual distrust. Congress puts more dos and don'ts into the law. Administrators complain of tighter straitjackets. None of this has produced a better foreign aid program - not for the recipient countries, not for US foreign policy, not for being in tune with American public opinion.

The present time is worse than most - because of deep political divisions within Congress and between Congress and the Clinton administration. American political theory says that such problems are solved through the electoral process, but that has not worked in the past, even when divisions were not so deep.

Experience shows that neither Congress nor the executive branch can be trusted to manage a foreign aid program for the sake of long-term interests while resisting short-term pressures.

Yet there are many reasons for the US to promote the third world's development. The best solution seems to be to send the money to the World Bank or other international financial institutions and then try not to tell them how to do it.

*Pat M. Holt was a staff member for 27 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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