Berman Had No Easy Job to Increase Foreign Aid : Congress: The Panorama City representative used his political connections to get his priorities into the House budget proposal. But it was only the first step in a long process.


Many members of Congress regard foreign aid as budgetary poison ivy, but Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) is not among them.

Berman has pushed for more foreign aid at a time when many congressmen believe that few voters appreciate their tax dollars going abroad, especially with domestic needs growing and the United States’ international economic position slipping.

Berman succeeded in getting more foreign aid in the House budget, passed last week, for the next fiscal year than the $16.6 billion the government is spending this year. If the allocation survives the budget labyrinth, it will reverse a five-year decline in foreign aid.

What follows is a look behind the scenes, based on interviews with congressmen and House staff members, at how Berman shaped one piece of the elaborate $1.2-trillion budget process. His success reflected, in part, the importance of personal connections--particularly to influential fellow Californians--as well as sheer persistence.


“Right from the beginning, he made sure it was his goal” to increase foreign aid funding, said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Budget Committee ally. “Berman worked his tail off for something he believes in, and he got it done.”

The story begins in January, when Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) sought to redefine the foreign aid debate by calling for a shift from traditional beneficiaries such as Israel, Egypt and Pakistan to emerging democracies in Eastern Europe and drug-fighting nations in Latin America.

To Berman, the only Democrat on both the House Foreign Affairs and Budget committees, those were fighting words.

He agreed that more money was needed for Eastern Europe and Latin America. But, appealing to idealism as well as self-interest, Berman argued that the pie should be expanded rather than redistributed.

“Foreign aid plays a more important role as we redefine our national security needs than military aid,” Berman said recently. “It’s very important in supporting development of democracy and America’s economic growth.”

Berman cited statistics indicating that $2 out of every $3 in foreign aid comes back to the United States in the form of U.S. goods and services that foreign countries buy. And he said that continued support is essential for the security and stability of traditional beneficiaries, including Israel. Berman is one of the Jewish state’s leading advocates on Capitol Hill.

Although Berman’s approach was often circuitous, his ultimate target was Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey), the powerful chairman of the House Budget Committee, which is charged with crafting a budget proposal to take to the House floor.

Panetta must produce a budget that falls within the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction limits and satisfies a majority of Democrats on the committee and, later, the full House. To do so, he must balance the conflicting demands of individual committee members and interest groups.

Berman went to work in late February. His goal was to build a coalition of key colleagues by lobbying them individually as well as exhorting constituent groups to put the heat on them. The more allies he lined up, the more clout he would have with Panetta.

Throughout, Berman was acting on behalf of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante B. Fascell (D-Fla.), the chief proponent of increased aid. Initially, the two paid a visit to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.).

They knew Foley was sympathetic but wanted to get him involved on their behalf. Foley said he would speak to Panetta.

Berman then approached Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley) to enlist the support of the Black Caucus for more aid to African nations and the Caribbean, both of which have suffered cuts in U.S. aid in recent years. Dellums, just back from a trip to Africa, offered to send a letter to Panetta calling for more foreign aid.

Berman then called Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente), another California ally, and Puerto Rico’s non-voting Resident Commissioner Jaime B. Fuster (D-San Juan), to enlist the help of the Hispanic Caucus. In this instance, Berman highlighted the need for more money for Nicaragua and Panama. He felt they would be supportive if he needed them.

Next, Berman spoke to Rep. William O. Lipinski (D-Ill.), an advocate for Eastern European immigrants, and emphasized the need for more aid for new Eastern European democracies. He asked Lipinski to organize other members whose districts include large numbers of ethnic minorities from that region.

All along, Berman was approaching Budget Committee members who had previously supported foreign aid. He started with Democrats, who hold a 21-14 majority on the committee, but he also identified several Republicans likely to be sympathetic if needed.

With each, he stressed the regions of interest to them. For instance, he knew Rep. Mike Espy (D-Miss.) was keenly supportive of aid to Africa. Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who is of Lithuanian descent, was most concerned about Eastern Europe.

“We met endlessly,” recalled Michael S. Powell, Berman’s legislative assistant on the budget. “We met for hours upon hours upon hours.”

Berman went to see House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) as well.

Cognizant of Gephardt’s acute interest in the United States’ ability to compete with Japan, Berman stressed that foreign aid for the U.S. Export-Import Bank is essential to give U.S. industries an even playing field overseas against heavily subsidized Japanese and European companies. In addition, he reminded Gephardt that Japan had surpassed the United States as the biggest provider of foreign aid as a percentage of gross national product.

“Even the most sweeping imaginable increases in foreign aid would have negligible effect on the overall budget deficit,” Berman wrote to Gephardt on Feb. 27. “Yet modest growth will go far in restoring the leadership role we once enjoyed among foreign aid donors.”

Gephardt, too, expressed his support.

At the same time, Berman was in touch with the politically potent American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and with Employment Through Exports, a business coalition that supports the Export-Import Bank. He encouraged the groups to turn up the pressure on Budget Committee members to support increased international assistance.

He also spoke to the Sierra Club, a natural ally because the foreign aid budget includes family planning funds for Third World countries, one of the environmental group’s priorities.

Then, with the House coalition and constituent groups in line, Berman went to Panetta.

The fellow California Democrats know each other well. Among other things, they worked closely on the sweeping 1986 immigration reform bill.

“There’s a great amount of trust there,” said a senior aide to Panetta. “They understand each other and they respect each other. There’s not a lot of posturing between them.”

Berman spoke to Panetta on the phone, on the House floor and in private meetings. Fascell joined him for one crucial session in Fascell’s office in early March.

The three lawmakers failed to reach agreement, but Fascell and Berman let Panetta know that his proposed $19.1 billion in spending authority and $16.9 billion in direct spending for foreign aid would not fly with them. This year’s figures are $18.4 billion in spending authority and $16.6 billion in direct spending, or actual outlays.

Spending authority represents congressional approval for federal agencies to enter into spending commitments that could span several years, while outlays are sums actually spent in a single budget year.

Berman and Fascell pushed Panetta harder than they had in previous years in part because they felt emboldened by the dramatic cuts the Democrats were advocating in defense spending. “I understand the problem,” Fascell said Panetta told them. “We’ll do the best we can.”

Foreign aid was, of course, just one part of a broad budget consensus Panetta was seeking. Without the backing of Democratic members, Panetta’s budget resolution could face a messy internecine battle in the committee or on the House floor.

“Leon is under tremendous pressure in the budget resolution,” Berman said. “Part of the dynamic that produces an agreement is the notion that the failure to produce one will result in a lot of opposition.”

Panetta subsequently agreed to modest increases. But Berman was not satisfied. He talked to Panetta on the House floor and invited Panetta’s two top budget staff members and his foreign aid budget analyst to his office for two sessions of poring over the foreign aid figures.

Berman was bolstered by the presence of Eric Lief, a 10-year veteran of the State Department who was working on Berman’s staff as a department fellow.

“It makes the member more effective if he can understand what the technical issues are,” said a Budget Committee staff member who participated in these meetings. Berman “really understood the nitty-gritty of what went into Panetta’s recommendations. It helped him argue where he thought we were short.”

Lief helped Berman understand how money for State Department programs is spent in the so-called “out years,” or those beyond the next year’s budget. This proved important in persuading Panetta’s staff of the need for increased spending authority.

“It was very important because the out years are really a mystery to most members,” Panetta’s aide said. “They chose the right policy for ’91 that would fit with our out-year path and that was really critical.”

Panetta eventually agreed to raise the numbers to $20.3 billion and $17.6 billion--or $1.2 billion more in spending authority and $700 million more in direct spending than he had originally planned to propose.

Berman’s triumph, however, was only the first step in a long process. The House budget, which was approved along partisan lines, is merely a Democratic blueprint for the congressional committees--particularly the House Appropriations Committee--that will decide later this year how much actually will be spent. Those deliberations will follow negotiations with the Republican Bush Administration as well as the Senate.

“It gives us a shopping license with Appropriations,” said Fascell, who called Berman’s role indispensable. “And Howard’s already hard at work on that.”