Perry's Call to Zero Out Foreign Aid Wins Few Accolades

Perry's Call to Zero Out Foreign Aid Wins Few Accolades

By Erin McPike - November 16, 2011

With austerity measures and spending cuts on the minds of Republican voters, it's not surprising that Rick Perry said at a GOP primary debate Saturday that every foreign country seeking financial assistance from the United States should start with a budget of $0 and then explain why it deserves help.

"The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is gonna start at zero dollars. Zero dollars," Perry said. "And then we'll have a conversation. Then we'll have a conversation in this country about whether or not a penny of our taxpayer dollar needs to go into those countries."

The thinking goes that when so many Americans are hurting at home, why send money abroad? On a larger level, it’s a point the GOP has been struggling with in recent years as the electorate has veered away from neocon-thinking and nation-building. That trend was punctuated by the enthusiasm earlier this year for potential presidential candidates Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels, both of whom argued that the defense budget could withstand some bold cuts. But foreign aid is separate from defense, and business and military leaders alike are rushing to defend our international affairs budget.

Nevertheless, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, two of the leading candidates for the nomination, agreed with Perry’s idea, although Romney’s team later pointed out that he meant only Pakistan should start at zero and have its needs reassessed. Michele Bachmann, a member of Congress, vehemently disagreed, as did Rick Santorum, who held a Senate seat through 2006. Ron Paul, however, a three-time candidate for president and longtime Texas congressman, believes foreign aid should be eliminated entirely. Perry’s proposal, then, falls somewhere in between.

Romney addressed the issue in an early November speech about fiscal policy, saying: “Did you know that we give $27 million a year in foreign aid to China? I will stop sending money to any country that can take care of itself. And no foreign aid will go to countries that oppose American interests." In his book “No Apology,” he points out that America provides a disproportionate amount of aid worldwide compared to the U.S. population, but he also noted that even with this support, American influence has waned.

And Jon Huntsman said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation”: “We're going to have to look very, very carefully at foreign aid. But we also have to look at it through the prism and through the analysis of what kind of return we get on our national interests. So when you've got aid money that goes to Israel that's balanced somewhat with the Palestinian authority, that's important.”

Republican sources say Perry’s comments were designed to drum up support among the Tea Party types he so badly needs to recover his waning support. But experts say that the public, by and large, doesn’t understand the scope or importance of foreign aid, and most GOP leaders disagree with Perry’s idea.

For one thing, they say, foreign aid is just 1 percent of the federal budget, so why spend time searching for waste when there so much excess elsewhere? In fact, foreign aid has not been in the congressional super committee’s crosshairs, but it did take a hit when the debt ceiling deal was reached this summer.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said Monday on Fox News that “the foreign aid that we put out is a very small part of our budget and a very important part of it.” He explained that while it’s never good to waste money, he assumed that Perry, Gingrich and Romney meant only that all investments and spending should be re-examined. “But we need to have a foreign aid budget; it’s an important part of our national security,” Rubio added.

Clearly, there’s a division among those who identify with the Tea Party; Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a darling of the movement, offered a funding amendment in September that would have nixed foreign aid altogether. It was soundly defeated in the upper chamber, with 78 senators voting against him.

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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