LIKE every federal program in a budget-conscious Republican Congress, foreign aid is in for an ordeal by fire.
At one level, money will be the issue as the Clinton administration and Congress haggle over whether and how much to trim United States assistance to poor countries abroad. At a more fundamental level the contest will be over ideology as the two sides debate the very purpose of foreign assistance and its relationship to US foreign interests.
Foreign aid should be linked to US interests, all sides agree. What those interests are, exactly, will be the sticking point when House and Senate committees take up the issue later this month and early next.
``We've had a bipartisan consensus supporting foreign aid programs over the years but this time the debate at the philosophical level will be deep,'' says J. Bryan Atwood, administrator of the US Agency for International Development (AID), which administers US development aid. ``The debate will be more about the premise than the details of foreign aid.''
The US now provides $13.5 billion in foreign aid, $7 billion of which is in the form of security assistance. The remainder - $6.5 billion - is economic, humanitarian, and development assistance administered by AID.
Of this, nearly $3 billion is earmarked for Israel, Egypt, and the former Soviet Union and is considered largely untouchable, though aid to the former Soviet Union may be cut slightly this year.
The real controversy over foreign aid focuses on the $3.5 billion that remains, including $1 billion for international food assistance, $800 million earmarked for Africa, and another $1.8 billion in development assistance to other parts of the world including Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.
This year's debate will be heavily influenced by two GOP lawmakers: Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that handles foreign aid.
Senator Helms has equated foreign aid spending with ``pouring money down a rat hole.'' Senator McConnell is less colorful but more specific. In a press conference last December, he announced plans to, among other things, cut development assistance to poor nations by 20 percent and eliminate the funding set aside for Africa.
As for programs favored by the Clinton administration to slow population growth, improve child and maternal health, and combat environmental degradation, McConnell says, they will have to be ``evaluated because they are outside the basic interest of the United States.''
McConnell, who has been a supporter of foreign aid, says he would subject funds left after Israel, Egypt, and the FSU are paid to two key tests.
Aid should only go to those countries judged important to American security interests. Europe and the Middle East pass the national interest test, McConnell says. Africa and Latin America do not. And aid should only go to those countries committed to democracy and free-market reforms.
Passing the test
``Developing the free-enterprise system is the only thing that has a chance of lifting people out of poverty,'' McConnell says. ``The kind of ongoing entitlement apart from government reform and economic reform is something we can no longer afford.''
Administration officials respond that unless aid-giving deals with the roots of crisis - grinding poverty, food shortages, environmental damage, and unsustainable rates of population growth - no reforms of any kind will be possible.
``It's easy to cut back aid spending since it won't affect us for five or 10 years. But that lack of far-sightedness could have a big impact in the long run,'' says a senior State Department source.
``You can't pursue the kind of political strategies we have - supporting democracy and trying to develop market systems - if poor nations are constantly at war with their ability to feed people and to provide a decent life and opportunity.''
Increasing amounts of international assistance are now needed to pay for disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, refugee programs, and peacekeeping, all of which ``keeps the awful from becoming worse but does not make the bad better,'' according to Jessica Mathews of the Council on Foreign Relations, speaking at a recent conference sponsored by the US Institute for Peace.
The need to spend more on what Dr. Mathews calls ``morally necessary but economically unproductive'' projects is reflected at the United Nations where, in a dramatic recent switch, five times more is now being spent on refugees and peacekeeping than on economic development.
A draft report now being considered by Republicans on the Senate Budget Committee calls for deep cuts in international affairs spending, including foreign aid. Among the targets: aid to the former Soviet Union and US contributions to multilateral development banks.
``The real issue is whether you want to deal with the long-term kinds of things or whether you view security only as when to use military force and under what circumstances,'' a senior White House official says. ``You have to look at the longer term: environment, population, democratic government. There's a real commitment here to having a preventive strategy.''
The US foreign aid program grew out of a successful effort to help Western European nations rebuild after World War II.
Although valued by many policymakers, foreign aid is considered highly vulnerable now because there is so little discretionary funding that can be cut to balance the budget.
Foreign aid has always been unpopular with voters, who believe that it consumes a large portion of the federal budget. More than a quarter of respondents in a November 1994 poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Kaiser Family Foundation said they thought foreign aid was the largest single item in the US budget.
But when told the actual amount - one-half of 1 percent - a 79 percent majority in another recent poll approved present levels of spending on foreign aid. Eighty percent of respondents in the January poll, conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, indicated that the US ``should be willing to share at least a small portion of its wealth with those in the world who are in great need.''
The US spends more money on foreign aid than any nation except Japan. But in terms of the percentage of its gross national product devoted to aid, the US ranks last among 21 industrialized nations. Adjusted for inflation, foreign aid spending is now lower now than at any time since World War II.