Sen. Rand Paul doesn’t like foreign aid — and he’s leveraging high-profile and controversial events in embattled countries to build a piecemeal legislative approach to show it.
The most recent example is Pakistan. The Kentucky Republican would like the U.S. government to cut off aid because of the imprisonment of a Pakistani doctor who helped provide information in the operation that resulted in the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. He introduced a bill Monday to strip all aid until Pakistan commutes the doctor’s 33-year prison sentence. Earlier this year, Paul pushed for an end to foreign aid to Egypt and Iran.
More than any other new member of the Senate GOP Conference, Paul has developed a knack for getting votes on his pet issues, boosted by his symbiotic relationship with Kentucky’s senior Senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Well, I think there’s a philosophic way to talk about foreign aid in totality, but there’s also another way, and that is to say, what are particularly egregious things that countries are doing that we give money to?” Paul said in a brief interview this week. “The vast majority of the American public doesn’t like foreign aid, myself included. They dislike it even more intensely when you remind them that the guy that helped us get one of the worst mass murderers in our history, bin Laden, they’re giving money to keep him in prison, and I think Americans are incensed by it.”
Though his amendments have not passed or become law, Paul has been able to use votes on his proposals to build a symbolic case on his broader philosophical goal: eliminating almost all foreign aid.
But he’s also building a record he could use should he choose to run for a higher office. His father, Rep. Ron Paul (R- Texas), a perennial presidential candidate, lists “Stop taking money from the middle class and the poor to give to rich dictators through foreign aid” as part of his platform on his 2012 campaign website.
Asked whether his legislative efforts might, in future elections, provide him with tangible examples backing his rhetoric on the global assistance issue, the Kentucky Senator demurred.
“Maybe. Maybe. But I’m thinking really about the here and now of actually trying to change what’s going on,” Paul said. “What it does in the future, I don’t know.”
Slashing foreign aid has not been a popular political position because the money is seen as an effective way to leverage American power around the world.
Paul, however, has made his distaste for foreign assistance part of his more libertarian approach to governance and his general belief in cutting the deficit by shrinking government.
In a budget he wrote this year, Paul crafted an entire section focused on reducing foreign aid, freezing it at $5 billion in fiscal 2013 — one-sixth of the $30 billion request for foreign aid this year.
“Though a portion of aid is provided for foreign military assistance, the majority of it remains for humanitarian assistance. While the intention to lift poor nations out of poverty is benevolent, often the assistance is counterproductive to increasing economic prosperity, as well as liberty and freedom,” Paul’s budget says.
Last month, only 16 of 47 Senate Republicans voted in favor of approving the Kentucky Republican’s budget, which would have balanced the budget by cutting spending significantly across the board and eliminating Medicare.
Moreover, it doesn’t appear Paul’s budgetary or country-by-country efforts will inspire a tectonic shift in how Republicans view foreign assistance.
“It always resonates with a certain element of the Republican Party. There’s an isolationist element of the Republican Party that has always been there and always will be,” Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain said.
The Arizona Republican added that he doesn’t believe the efforts to curb aid in specific countries will result in a larger shift on the issue within the party. “I think they’re entitled to their views and entitled to debate those positions and I respect them, but I just don’t agree with them,” he said.
Where there has been some evolution on the issue of foreign aid is on the campaign trail.
In an October GOP presidential debate, now-presumptive nominee Mitt Romney launched an attack on foreign aid based on domestic economic and budget conditions.
“I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid. We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people that are taking that borrowed money today,” Romney said. “Let me tell you: We’re spending more on foreign aid than we ought to be spending.”
Despite some buzzy sound bites from last fall, Paul concedes that he doesn’t think many Republicans will join him in his campaign to end military and humanitarian spending abroad.
But true to his tea party roots, Paul paints the issue in terms of a Beltway-Main Street disconnect, saying that lawmakers see foreign aid as an issue of great importance, but voters do not.
“I always tell people that I think it’s the opposite here as it is with the public. ... Really, the legislature here lags greatly behind the public on foreign aid,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.