If there’s an intellectual successor to former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), it’s Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), who was elected in November to fill her seat.
Given his unimpeachable Tea Party credentials, it was particularly shocking to see Emmer make a full-throated defense of foreign aid, a government program under attack from right-wing voters, during a tele-town hall this week.
Acknowledging his own past opposition to foreign aid — for example, he floated the idea of pulling U.S. foreign aid in a 2012 Facebook post — Emmer told viewers that his mind had changed on the matter after a recent trip to visit beneficiaries of foreign aid in Ethiopia and Kenya. “I have made the statement in the past that a dollar that we are spending for instance in Africa, in Kenya, is a dollar that we could probably be using at home to build a road or a bridge,” Emmer said. “Well it’s not that simple.”
Instead, Emmer now argues, foreign aid can be a win-win. It helps pave the way for development in other countries, boosting their economies and in turn creating demand for American exports in the future. He recounted how an encounter with a dairy co-op in Kenya that has been boosted by funding from the United States Agency for International Development helped show him the light. “A dollar spent on [foreign aid] is a dollar that we won’t have to spend on additional bombs and bullets and God forbid boots on the ground in the future,” Emmer noted.
Watch it (relevant portion from 17:00–21:00):
Large swaths of Republicans, especially those aligned with the Tea Party wing, have called for reducing, if not outright eliminating, foreign aid as a way to save money. GOP presidential aspirants both past (Mitt Romney and much of the 2012 field) and current (Rand Paul and Rick Perry) have called for zeroing out foreign assistance, for instance.
However, Emmer’s got a response to these critics: foreign aid “frankly is less than one percent of our overall budget.” Indeed, part of the opposition to foreign aid likely stems from the fact that Americans mistakenly believe it comprises over a quarter of the federal budget, not the one percent it actually does. When people’s mistaken perceptions were corrected, pollsters found that their support for spending on foreign aid soared.
This is the challenge that Emmer now faces in trying to convince his fellow Tea Party followers about the wisdom of foreign assistance. However, he won’t be alone in that fight. He’s joined in his support by a handful of presidential hopefuls, including Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, and Mike Huckabee, who called eliminating foreign aid “outrightly foolish” and “un-Christian.”