WASHINGTON -- Foreign aid, be it F-16 fighter jets or anti-malaria sleep nets, falls into the same federal budget line-item. So it was an unlikely alliance of military industrialists and humanitarians gathering together Wednesday night to urge Congress not to cut back on what insiders call the "150 account."
With the Republican House threatening to slash the amount of assistance being sent abroad -- if not eliminate it completely -- the two groups were willing to overcome their clashing world views and listen to Microsoft founder turned mega-philanthropist Bill Gates declare that "investing in the world's poorest people is the smartest way our government spends money."
"We've agreed that we will push hard together for the highest number we can get," said Sam Worthington, the president of Interaction, an alliance of U.S.-based nonprofits working around the world. "We have found that we can probably do better on the overall number by working together.
"But once the number is in place, we may find some differences," Worthington added. "We agree to disagree below the overall number."
Although most of the talk at the dinner was about health and humanitarian aid, the plurality of foreign aid money goes to something else entirely: Military aid, often in the form of grants that countries are only allowed to spend on American military hardware.
The coalition most emphatically does not take a position on the apportionment of the money within the foreign aid budget, choosing instead to see all the programs as contributing to American "smart power," coalition chairman George Ingram said.
But with a nascent Egyptian democracy movement potentially on the brink of being crushed by a U.S.-armed central government, the distinction between the two kinds of aid was on many people's minds.
As the Boston Globe recently reported, more than half of the $60 billion of U.S. aid to Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak came to power in 1981 has been spent supplying weapons to the country's military, "an arrangement that critics say has benefited American military contractors more than ordinary Egyptians."
The alliance's political neutrality may also fall apart under pressure.
The coalition sees itself as quintessentially bipartisan -- indeed, the night's two honorees, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, were introduced with video tributes from former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively. So there was no overt mention from the dais of where the threat to the foreign aid budget actually comes from. But everyone knows it is from the House Republicans in general -- and the Tea Party in particular.
President Barack Obama's FY 2011 budget request calls for a total of $34.6 billion in foreign aid, including $10.8 billion in military aid, $9.4 billion in health aid and $4 billion in humanitarian aid. (That's way less than most Americans think, by the way.)
But the House Republican leadership has said it wants to return non-security discretionary spending to 2008 levels. For foreign aid, that would amount to a 35-percent reduction from Obama's requested level.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has proposed to do away with the foreign aid budget entirely.
"This year, you've got your work cut out for you," warned event emcee and media personality Cokie Roberts.
"The ask is simply keep us where we are," honoree Ridge told reporters before the dinner.
In her speech, Albright warned of those "who think of America as an island" and concluded that "we have some educating to do."
For instance, she said, "we have good reason to be concerned about the federal budget deficit." But Congress should keep in mind that "the best route to fiscal stability is to prevent war."
Gates said the argument for foreign aid is strong. "In this time of tradeoffs, it's fair to ask tough questions about our aid expenditures," he said.
But new programs with new accountability mechanisms now make aid money's effects startlingly clear, he said.
"If we take people off AIDS treatments, they will die," Gates said. "If we fail to replace bed nets when they wear out, children will get sick, and die. If we pull back from the goal of polio eradication, we will lose the only chance we've ever had to eliminate this scourge from the earth. "
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.
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