AID learns that good deeds do not go unpunished

February 18, 1996|By Sara Engram

WHEN THE Clinton administration preached ''reinvention'' of government, the State Department's Agency for International Development heeded the call.

Along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, AID became one of two federal ''reinvention laboratories'' where all the talk about more efficient, more effective and less costly management turned into reality.

AID has shed some 70 senior-level positions, each paying about $100,000 a year. It has slimmed total staffing levels by 16 percent -- from 10,800 people to 9,050. It has cut regulations by 55 percent, cut the time it takes to award competitive contracts from a year to 150 days, cut project-design time by 75 percent and overhauled its program operations, procurement, accounting and budget procedures.

Virtue is its own reward

And what thanks does it get for doing more with less?

A whopping budget cut, along with potentially devastating restrictions on some programs.

The saga of the 1996 AID budget is one of the grimmer tales of the budget stand-off. The agency never expected an easy ride, given the Republican-controlled Congress' zeal for slashing the budget and the difficulty of defending aid to other countries when we have plenty of poor, homeless and hungry people right here at home.

But the fact is that foreign aid is crucial to advancing U.S. interests around the globe and to making the world a safer place. From nurturing economic activity that raises living standards and slows the rate of illegal immigration, to helping emerging democracies set up a system of law, to providing medical care and family-planning assistance to countries with burgeoning birth rates and high rates of infant and maternal mortality -- the agency's programs plant seeds that, eventually, can help forestall political unrest or hostilities that spill over into wider wars.

Tiny share

Foreign aid is a tiny share of the budget -- less than 3 percent, and AID gets only a sixth of that. But a recent poll showed an alarming number of Americans assumed that the government spent more on foreign aid than on Medicare.

Under the compromise finally reached by Congress and the White House, the agency's budget will be cut 11 percent. Since some aid programs, such as assistance to Egypt and Israel, must hold relatively steady, other programs took an especially hard hit.

None, however, got the shabby treatment reserved for family-planning assistance. Those programs, a favorite target of a small House group of zealous opponents of abortion and family planning, were cut 35 percent, a loss of more than $200 million from 1995 funding levels. Even worse, these opponents succeeded in requiring that no funds for 1996 be spent before July 1 -- and then that the allocation be dribbled out in 15 monthly increments, most of which would come, absurdly, after the end of the year for which the money is appropriated.

Since the budget impasse had blocked expenditures after October 1, that requirement creates a nine-month gap -- an ironic length -- in U.S. aid for family-planning services for some of the poorest families in the world. Clearly, the restrictions are aimed at interrupting these programs, many of which are administered by private, non-profit organizations in countries receiving the aid.

Defeat for families

The victory for ideology is a clear defeat for tens of thousands of families who, as a consequence, will experience higher rates of unplanned pregnancies and more deaths among mothers and infants. Pregnancy is a high-risk undertaking in countries where nutrition is poor and health care is inaccessible or primitive.

It's also a defeat for efficient government -- and an illustration of how Congress can talk one game and play another. Despite its calls for effective government, Congress can't resist an ideological power play. What else explains a requirement that must have been dreamed up in red-tape heaven?

Instead of one, clean transaction, we'll now have 15 checks and 15 contracts for a program that is underfunded to begin with. Reinventing government? The bureaucrats are hearing the message. It's the ideologues who, it seems, couldn't care less.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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