A majority of American taxpayers do not know how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent by Washington, much less the specific programs and initiatives that are launched by policymakers in Washington, DC and around the world using U.S. monies. If our government was more transparent, I suspect that more people would pay closer attention to these things and would likely require their representatives in the Congress to be more careful with how they spend our money.
One particular area of the federal budget that is low-hanging fruit for reform is foreign assistance. Foreign assistance is the term loosely used to discuss your tax dollars being sent to foreign countries and international organizations for all kinds of programs. Depending on how one compiles the list, the U.S. sends hundreds of millions to billions of dollars a year to foreign recipients. It is a necessary foreign policy tool. But one that is long overdue for substantive reform.
Almost every Congress and Presidential Administration in recent memory has claimed it will tackle foreign assistance reform, but this important task remains illusory. By and large, reform in this area becomes replacement, or the scrapping of an expensive program with another program that is equally as wasteful and likely to be scrapped before we know if it had any chance of succeeding or meeting the stated goals. In this process not only is our money wasted, but our legal rights, potentially, eroded.
As the premier global power, the U.S. needs a robust foreign assistance program that reflect our values. It should be goal-focused and always mindful that it is funded by U.S. taxpayer monies. The return on investment needs to be measurable. Programs must hold recipients accountable (a somewhat good example of a workable program is the Millennium Challenge Corporation).
These programs must not only be approved by Congress but, most importantly, the Congress must keep close tabs on the spending. This keeping tabs on the program and spending is called Congressional oversight. It is a powerful tool and Congress has a Constitutional obligation to carry it out. Some scholars argue it is one of the most important duties and power that Members of Congress can wield over the federal bureaucracy.
Left alone without Congressional oversight, foreign assistance programs and related regulations have tendency to grow, and grow, and grow. Slopping legislative drafting and inadvertent grants of power to the Executive in this field cost taxpayers money and can put at risk and erode national sovereignty.
Regulations costs money to implement and enforce. It also costs money to comply with them, just ask any business. How much power can the State Department, Commerce Department, and other agencies of the federal government exact through regulatory processes? A great deal. And most of the time, unless brought to its attention, the Congress will not oversee the programs in a robust enough manner to ensure that the regulations accurately reflect the intent of the laws approved by Congress.
Consider the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP). According to a U.S. Government website, the SPP “was launched in March of 2005 as a trilateral effort to increase security and enhance prosperity among the United States, Canada and Mexico through greater cooperation and information sharing.”
Under our Constitution, and throughout our history, the Executive is wisely granted a great deal of power to conduct the foreign affairs and manage the national security concerns of the country. There is a role however for the U.S. Congress in this process including approving the money to carry out these programs, as well as oversight. Various Congressional committees are charged with this role.
How may hearings have there been on the SPP? According to my research, there was no one hearing in the last Congress about the SPP. Why is all this so important?
In a nutshell, U.S. officials have met various times with foreign governments and have entered informal agreements to do certain things in the field of national security and free enterprise. Are these meetings resulting in new regulations to comply or harmonize with SPP principles? If this is going on, are U.S. citizens and corporations being granted the opportunity to provide fulsome comments in an open comment and answer period that has been advertised in the Federal Register?
The SPP may be a great idea, yet little is really known about it. I have asked Members of Congress and senior staff about the SPP and they know little if anything at all about it. In fact, it is no surprise that the Internet is full of conspiracy theory-laden websites about the SPP. There are some serious efforts underway to shine more light on the SPP including by the food folks over at Judicial Watch.
As with U.S. foreign assistance programs, efforts such as the SPP need robust Congressional oversight. Someone had to pay for our officials to attend SPP meetings, set up the website, and put in force a process with employees at various agencies to ensure that the SPP gained traction in the federal bureaucracy.
In challenging economic times, our tax dollars need to be wisely invested, not wasted. As I said at the onset, if our government was more transparent, I suspect that more people would pay closer attention to these things and would likely require their representatives in the Congress to be more careful with how they spend our money. Foreign assistance reform is long overdue.