CONGRESS and the administration are about to face tough choices over how much the United States is willing to spend to promote its international interests. Although only 1 percent of the budget and only 0.2 percent of overall gross national product - foreign aid continues to be a favorite target for the budgetary ax. Early this month the Senate will decide how hard that ax will fall.
Foreign aid is intended, in the words of the federal budget, ``to promote American interests abroad.'' But most observers agree with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, who said last year that the aid program is ``exhausted intellectually, conceptually, and politically.''
Calls for reform have echoed for several years. Now the Clinton administration has a reform effort underway, but it must find a way to fund it. So far, the administration has said the right things about the needs to support sustainable development, linking economic growth, poverty reduction, and environmental protection with human rights and democracy. President Clinton has said ``our lives and our livelihoods depend on people throughout the world being healthy, prosperous, and respectful of the planet we all share.''
A recent State Department report advocating revamping the US Agency for International Development (USAID) recommends focusing on four areas vital to US interests abroad: the environment, population and health issues, strengthening democracy, and encouraging economic growth.
All this would cost money. In April, Mr. Clinton actually proposed a slight increase in aid levels in order to meet new needs for peacekeeping and to support Boris Yeltsin's reforms in the former Soviet Union. But the House of Representatives has made across-the-board cuts part of its deficit reduction package, draining funds from many programs: the World Bank's low-cost loans to the world's poorest countries; immunizations for children under five; disaster assistance and aid for Africa; and AIDS prevention, to name a few.
These cuts are only for fiscal year 1994. In the following years the picture gets worse. Clinton's April budget projections show that over the next five years international development aid will drop 17 percent and international security assistance by 11 percent.
From the outset a sizeable portion of the foreign-aid pie is mortgaged to satisfy US obligations in a few specific countries.
Only two options remain: to increase the foreign-aid budget, using funds from defense budget savings, or to reduce the allocations to the largest aid recipients.
A significantly reduced foreign-aid budget is making its way through the Senate, carrying cuts of many programs despite the fact that the US can no longer claim to be a global power if it cannot finance essential efforts overseas.