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Robert Walker

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The Compassion Deficit

Posted: 07/21/11 06:36 PM ET

Caught up in the deficit-slashing mood that now grips Washington, the House Foreign Affairs Committee was busy at work this week on restricting foreign aid authorizations. For anyone concerned about the health and welfare of the world's poor, it's not a pretty sight.

The committee this week "marked-up" a State Department authorization bill that, among other things, seeks to cut the U.S. contribution to the U.N. by 25 percent and re-impose the "gag rule" prohibiting U.S. foreign assistance to organizations that advocate for abortion rights.

The committee approved an amendment offered by Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) that would prohibit the use of any assistance to Argentina, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Bolivia for being too sympathetic to the Chavez government in Venezuela. Another, offered by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), would prohibit any foreign assistance to countries that oppose the U.S. more than 50 percent of the time in the U.N. Efforts by Democrats to ensure that there would be adequate funding for the U.N. mission in the South Sudan were quickly brushed aside.

Some might characterize the Committee's assault on foreign aid as "isolationist" or "ideological," but that would be charitable. On their face, these amendments seek to penalize countries and institutions that are not fully in lockstep with the Committee's conservative orthodoxy, but their impact will scarcely be felt, if at all, by the political leaders. The only people who will suffer are the poorest of the poor, who depend on U.N. and U.S. foreign assistance for medicine, food, water, and sanitation.

Almost entirely absent from Wednesday's debate was any discussion of the humanitarian disaster that is sweeping the Horn of Africa, where 10-12 million are on the verge of starvation as the result of one of the worst droughts to ever hit the region. Nor was there any discussion of how rising food prices this year are driving an estimated 44 million people into severe poverty. And hardly a word was said about the tragedies still unfolding in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Cote d'Ivoire. Compassion, even for suffering in our own hemisphere, was just not in evidence, as the Committee rejected efforts to ensure that peacekeeping funding to Haiti would not be curtailed.

With a giant "heat dome' looming over much of the east coast, temperatures in Washington this week are nearing the 100 degree mark. But in the air-conditioned comfort of the Rayburn House Office building, where the mark-up is being held, there doesn't appear to be much concern about global warming. The committee approved an amendment, offered by Rep. Connie Mack, that would block any funds from being spent for the Administration's Global Climate Change Initiative, which helps developing countries devise and implement strategies for adapting to climate change.

Whatever is done by the House of Representatives to rein in foreign assistance, it will make little difference in the efforts to rein in federal deficits; foreign assistance is just a tiny fraction of the federal budget. But even small cuts in U.N. funding or U.S. bilateral assistance can make a big difference in the lives of people struggling to survive in places like South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Cote d'Ivoire, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Haiti.

The kinds of foreign aid restrictions debated and adopted by the committee are reminiscent of the Cold War era, when the U.S. and its allies were locked into a struggle against communism. But the declared "enemy" then was the Soviet Union; today the great nemesis is Hugo Chavez. Restrictions that may have the practical effect of cutting things like family planning, emergency aid, and refugee assistance are hardly worth of a great power. And curbing funding for the United Nations at a time when it is working alongside the U.S. in places like Iraq and Afghanistan hardly seems a well thought out strategy for those concerned about global security.

What's most disturbing, however, is that in listening to the committee deliberations it's evident that many members simply don't care about the world's poor. They believe that they were sent to Washington to save taxpayer dollars no matter what the cost in terms of lives saved or hardships avoided.

In the next few weeks, Congress may do something to reconcile the government's budget deficit. But it looks as though it will do nothing to address the compassion deficit.