House lawmakers on Tuesday turned anti-Chinese sentiments against the federal agency responsible for allocating $4 million in U.S. funds for environmental initiatives in China, the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt.
Despite the relatively small amount of money going to China in aid this year, Republicans and Democrats bashed the programs during a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Asia and Pacific panel, calling them a "giant mistake of thinking" by the State Department and "an insult" to taxpayers in America.
State's foreign aid programs have been in the crosshairs recently among lawmakers and presidential hopefuls, especially given the nation's $14 trillion government debt. Republican frontrunner former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been targeting China in particular as an example of misguided taxpayer funding.
"This galls me: We give 10 million dollars in foreign aid a year to China," Romney said during a speech earlier this month. "Its not that they're bad people, but the idea that a nation that is as large and robust and economically viable as theirs is getting money from us just makes no sense at all." [Read how foreign policy is a matter of rhetoric versus reality in presidential campaigns.]
The nearly $4 million in aid discussed on Tuesday—which is part of the $12 million in overall aid given to China this fiscal year—is a small percentage of the country's total foreign assistance budget, and is even less significant compared to the spending cuts being negotiated by members of Congress's so-called "supercommittee" this week.
But the political rancor is more theater than frugality.
"The idea that we would give foreign aid to China is an insult to the American taxpayer," said California Democrat Rep. Brad Sherman. "I don't worry so much about the $3.95 million. I worry about the mindset in our foreign policy establishment that thinks sending checks to Beijing is a good idea."
Nisha Desai Biswal, the assistant administrator for Asia at the United States Agency for International Development, offered a spirited defense of the China aid before skeptical lawmakers, claiming the $125 million in aid over the past decade fundamentally advances America's own interests in the country.
According to Biswal, USAID does not give money directly to the Chinese government. Instead, the money is used to fund public advocacy initiatives in China to raise awareness about issues such as climate change and the illegal trafficking of endangered species.
She said that as much as a third of particulate pollution in California is due to coal-fired power plants in China, so the financial incentives are geared toward encouraging the Chinese to cut back on their environmentally harmful or illegal practices for the sake of Americans' health and economy. [Read how problems in the U.S. economy have put China in the political crosshairs.]
Lawmakers pointed out that there's no easy way to measure the success of the USAID programs, especially given the lack of regulation and enforcement regarding the environment and in other areas of the Chinese economy.
"If the [People's Republic of China] lacks the political will to clean up its own backyard, no amount of U.S. funds will change that reality," said Illinois Republican Rep. Don Manzullo.
Manzullo, in particular, pointed out that a media campaign recently sponsored by USAID in China was titled "Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, and Wildlife."
"What does sex got to do with stopping the illegal trafficking of animals, of endangered species?" he asked.
Biswal defended the campaign, saying that while it may have been "glib and ill-advised," it sought to make the correlation between the illegal trafficking of animals and the illegal trafficking of drugs and people that occurs through China's borders.
"The U.S. taxpayer pays for this because these programs address our core interests," she said. "We believe that this is an appropriate use of U.S. tax funds."