Former First Lady Laura Bush Urges GOP to Spare Foreign Aid

Former First Lady Laura Bush urged Congress not to make foreign aid cuts that may harm women and children, arguing that reductions in funding would also hurt the U.S. economy, national security and the nation’s moral standing.

House Republicans, looking to trim the budget deficit, are targeting the State Department, which oversees foreign assistance. Their proposed 16 percent cut to the agency’s budget would be “devastating,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said March 1.

“I would try to get in touch with some and tell them that I think it’s really important and that it’s worth the 1 percent of the budget that it is,” Bush said on “Conversations with Judy Woodruff,” airing this weekend on Bloomberg TV. “It’s worth it because of our own moral interest to be generous and to help other people, but it’s also worth it both for our national security and for economic interests.”

At the same time, the former first lady has no plans to lobby members of Congress, according to the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. In a hearing before a House appropriations subcommittee today, Clinton voiced thanks to Bush for her efforts to promote the importance of foreign aid.

Bush said that while her husband, former President George W. Bush, would not weigh in with Congress, he “would talk about how important it is both for national security and for our moral interest as a country.”

Laura Bush joined Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Helene Gayle, president of CARE International, a nonprofit organization that combats poverty, in attempting to raise awareness of the benefits of maternal and infant health programs.

Gayle acknowledged that she is “pretty worried” about the budget climate and what it could mean for foreign aid. Fully 42 percent of Americans believe that cutting such programs would result in a very large reduction in the deficit, according to a March 4-7 Bloomberg National Poll, and 72 percent of Americans favor significant cuts in assistance to other countries.

Pressuring Congress

Gayle said that her organization had 1,000 volunteers going to Congress this week to “make it clear to our policy makers that there’s a constituency that cares about global poverty.”

Bush and Gayle said that the effects of disease and poverty overseas don’t stop at the U.S. border. “If other countries have a chance to be stable, then that helps us,” Bush said. “Diseases don’t respect borders.”

Gayle said that the interconnected nature of the world means “we can no longer say that it’s about those people over there.”

“Our economies are tied together,” she said. “Our security is tied together. Our futures are tied together. So it is one of the best returns on investment for less than 1 percent of our taxpayers’ dollars.”

Obama’s Support

Gates, who visited President Barack Obama this week with her husband, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) founder Bill Gates, said Americans understand that foreign aid “is not just a line item in a budget, you’re talking about a life.” In some cases, as little as $2 could save a child’s life, Gates said.

Obama “completely gets” the importance of foreign aid and maternal and child programs in particular, Gates said. “He knows that also, if you build up a woman so she stays alive and her child stays alive,” she can help her economy to grow, Gates said.

“We export to those emerging economies,” she said, “and that creates jobs for us, so they’re all linked.”

At the launch of a maternal and child health program yesterday, Clinton said she would be going to Congress today in her fourth visit to defend her agency’s $47 billion budget request for the 2012 fiscal year.

“Everyone knows that we’re in a difficult budget environment,” Clinton said, adding that she is trying to make the case for funding the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development “in every way I know.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at ngaouette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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