Rand Paul thinks a debtor nation shouldn't lavish gifts on other countries. Washington disagrees.
The Kentucky senator talks about his crusade to rein in foreign aid, one of the government's most unpopular programs
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released dire new debt projections Tuesday, an announcement which, if history serves as any guide, will do nothing to alter the course of our spending morass.
There is plenty of blame to be laid at Washington's feet for this march toward profligacy. But it also must be admitted that the general public is incessantly fickle about trimming federal outlay. Oh, we overwhelmingly like the idea of cuts in the abstract, but when it's time to place specific programs on the chopping block, it's all awkward side glances and cricket sounds.
The cash and gifts the U.S. lavishes on foreign governments is quite unpopular, a fact which has not escaped the notice of small government champion Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). "When we look at places that we can cut, the thing that seems to have the most unifying force when you talk to the public is foreign aid," he told The Week, noting he's been cheered across party lines for his efforts to rein in spending abroad. While support for real cuts can be hard to come by, when Paul tells constituents "that we've given $15 billion to Pakistan over about a decade" — that is, to a country with a poor human rights record, including blasphemy laws which have landed at least one Pakistani Christian on death row — "people are appalled."
They're so appalled, in fact, they tend to wildly overestimate just how much of the annual budget is eaten up by foreign aid: Pollsters have found for years that most Americans think it's in the neighborhood of 25 percent. In reality, it's closer to 1 percent.
Paul is undeterred. "The one critique that the left and some on the right come back with is that, 'Oh, it's just a small percentage of the government,'" he concedes. "But the interesting thing is that if you cut 1 percent of spending every year for about five years you balance the budget. So even though foreign aid is about 1 percent, it's not an insignificant amount of money."
In hard annual numbers, that money looks like about $30 billion in development aid plus some $6 billion in military aid, using figures from 2015. Together, that comes out to a little less than 1 percent of the $3.8 trillion Washington spent last year — but if anything, we've undercounted. The $6 billion includes direct financing (like the $3.1 billion we sent to Israel, the $1.3 billion to Egypt, and the millions to more than 140 other nations worldwide), but it excludes massive American spending commitments in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and South Korea.
Yet more expansive tallies aside, that conservative estimate of 1 percent annually is a cut Paul surmises about three quarters of Americans would support. That's not wildly off from a national YouGov poll from this spring which found 51 percent would like to cut foreign aid spending, and another 21 percent don't want to see it increase above current levels.
Washington, however, takes a different view, as was displayed in a Senate vote taken in March at Paul's behest. His opposition to military aid was then incarnate in an attempt to block a U.S.-subsidized sale of Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighters to Pakistan. Invoking a provision of the 1976 Arms Export Control Act — the first time any senator had done so in the last three decades — Paul was able to force a floor debate and vote.
That effort failed 71-24, nearly a perfect inverse of those YouGov poll results. "I guess what amazes me is that's completely the opposite of what the public probably would say," Paul mused, pledging his intention to keep pushing for military aid cuts like this one until congressional opinion more accurately reflects the public view. "Often I think Washington is a decade behind public opinion," he says, repeating a favorite stump speech line, and "it takes a long time for public opinion to express itself in terms of who represents us."
Ultimately, that F-16 sale failed, as Pakistan backed out once the deal was presented sans financing from Washington thanks to a hold placed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who voted against Paul's more ambitious measure and criticized him for requiring a vote at all. But Paul argues the immediate subsidy, Corker's sticking point, doesn't get at the meat of the problem. "Really almost any of our arms sales are subsidized," he says, "because the American taxpayer pays to develop that technology."
That comprehensive perspective is definitive for Paul's foreign aid policy, which he casts as one aspect of an over-arching plan to root out waste and misplaced priorities in defense-related spending, a major contributor to the debt of which the CBO warns. Highlighting the failures of already unpopular aid spending — like how aid receipt is well-correlated with corruption and not so much with poverty; or how aid sent to repressive states tends to encourage bad behavior — is a good place to start. But, Paul goes on, "the bottom line is in order to get rid of waste, you have to squeeze the total amount of money."
While some of his colleagues are more interested in fiddling around the margins with needed work like procurement reform, Paul argues their efforts are too little, too late if the overall Pentagon budget continues to grow. "[I]f we're spending $600 billion on the military and you want to increase that to $700 billion, you won't get less waste;" he says, "you'll have more."
As it stands, in foreign aid specifically and military spending more broadly, most Americans don't know where or why or how our government spends billions on billions of dollars abroad each year, but the persistent overestimation of how much Washington devotes to aid suggests a deep conviction the total is too high. With the last 15 years of intervention under our belt — and apparently little to show for it — it is no wonder Americans are tired of guiding, financing, and policing the world.
Anyone with a lick of hindsight would be.