Foreign aid may account for a mere 1 percent of the federal budget, but talk of eliminating it consumed a much higher percentage of the most recent GOP presidential primary debate.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he would make every country “come in at zero and make your case” before receiving any aid money. Newt Gingrich agreed, saying at Saturday’s CBS/National Journal debate that “you ought to start off at zero and say, explain to me why I should give you a penny.”
And front-runner Mitt Romney concurred, although his spokesman said later that the former Massachusetts governor would only zero aide to Pakistan and other “countries that can take care of themselves or countries that oppose American interests.”
All foreign assistance, which includes everything from HIV/AIDS prevention to Haiti earthquake assistance to Afghan military training, accounted for about 1 percent of the federal budget in 2010.
To put that in perspective, the interest on America’s debt accounted for about 5 percent and Medicare made up about 13 percent of the total $3.4 trillion budget.
“The first thing to understand about foreign aid is that it’s tiny, it’s less than 1 percent of the United States budget,” said Daniel Serwer, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “You can cut it all and make no difference whatsoever to the debt problem.”
GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that his Republican rivals were “sound-bite campaigning” in order to “get an applause line.”
“The fact of the matter is we’re broke as a country, and we’re going to have to look very, very carefully at foreign aid,” he said. “There are certain areas that I would argue are in America’s interest. And if they’re in America’s interest we get some return on that invested dollar.”
Foreign aid tends to be both highly unpopular, vastly misunderstood by the American people, Serwer said.
According to an April CNN/ORC poll, 60 percent of respondents said they thought foreign aid accounted for 10 percent of federal spending. One in five said aid to other countries took up 30 percent of the budget.
“You can understand why if people think we are speeding 20 cents of every tax dollar on foreign aid they would have quite intemperate things to say about it,” said John Norris, the executive director of the Center for American Progress’ Sustainable Security Program.
Targeting the $30 billion expenditure is, thus, a “winning strategy” for politicians looking to make budget cuts, Serwer said, even though in actuality it represents such a small fraction of federal spending.
“I think it’s fair to call it pandering to base instincts and ignorance,” he said. “It is a facile, shallow approach to a subject that frankly doesn’t merit the attention of anybody running for president because it is not enough money for anyone to shake a stick at.”
Nevertheless, assistance to foreign countries still accounts for billions of dollars in federal spending every year. Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel received the largest sums in 2010, with the U.S. dolling out more than $3 billion to each country in 2010.
Democrats pushed back hard against the Romney, Perry and Gingrich plans to cut such aid. Seeking to draw a stark contrast between President Obama and his GOP rivals, former Rep. Robert Wexler blasted the Republicans for seeking to end this “vital support” to Israel.
“The Republican presidential candidates sent the message that if any one of them gets elected that the security relationship with the United States and Israel is on an annual basis and we’ll see what happens,” Wexler said in a conference call with reporters on Monday. “That is too precarious.”
The White House was similarly supportive of current aid programs and criticized the Republican candidates’ calls to end or reduce the aid.
“I can certainly say that is not an approach that this administration has taken,” Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday at the daily White House briefing. “The provision of civilian assistance is critical to the success of promoting American interests and serving American interests in countries around the world.”
Connie Veillette, the director of the Center for Global Development’s Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance Program, said eliminating all foreign aid in one fell swoop would “create havoc.”
“It would do more harm to U.S. foreign policy than it would do good for the budget,” she said. “I think that once a candidate gets off the campaign trail and walks in the Oval Office they will want to be able to use every tool available to affect U.S. global engagement.”