Going Down The Aid 'Rathole'?

The so-called foreign aid program . . . has spent an estimated two trillion dollars of the American taxpayers' money, much of it going down foreign ratholes to countries that constantly oppose us in the United Nations, and many which rejected concepts of freedom.'' With that postelection blast, Sen. Jesse Helms put the White House on notice that he's saddling up a favorite hobby horse as he prepares to chair the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A guide to the foreign-aid rodeo:

A sacred cow. But Helms casually remarked in one recent interview that he'd like to shift the aid from the State Department, which he views as a nest of liberal elitists, to the Pentagon; currently the two share the Israel account. Ultimately, Helms may move to cap the amount of money allocated to Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Gaza Strip, a total of $6 billion -- about half of all U.S. foreign aid. Republicans will try to block any effort to deploy U.S. troops on the Golan Heights as part of an Israeli-Syrian peace settlement.

Red meat. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who lobbied strenuously for the aid at the start of Clinton's term, will have a rough ride on Capitol Hill defending what some conservatives see as a mistaken tilt toward Russia. Helms wants to issue loans, not grants, and to demand mineral rights to Russian chromium, diamonds and gas as collateral; he would help create a banking system but slash direct foreign aid, called ""development aid,'' which he considers the main foreign-aid ""rathole.'' Conservatives also want to fund such private groups as the Polish Enterprise Fund and the Russian Enterprise Fund instead of government bureaucracies. But about half of the $1.6 billion appropriated for Russia last year, much of it still unspent, was for nuclear disarmament, a cause Helms supports. The administration will argue that an attack on the aid package could prompt Russian nationalists to turn anti-American, threatening the new thaw between the cold-war rivals.

The United Nations is involved in 15 such operations around the world; Haiti, the next, has so far cost Washington 1.4 billion alone, Helms's staffers say. Republicans in Congress are angry that they weren't consulted about the operation, and predict that most of the GIs will be off the island before U.N. troops arrive. U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright may not be able to continue to commit to U.N. peacekeeping operations and expect Congress to find the money later. In the House, the Republicans' ""Contract With America'' calls for a law requiring that the president certify to Congress that each peacekeeping operation is of vital national interest. Republicans also want to cut Washington's share of U.N. peacekeeping operations, now more than 30 percent of a $3.2 billion budget, to 25 percent.

U.S. contributions to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and such United Nations agencies as the U.N. Development Fund will come in for intense scrutiny; Helms considers them hotbeds of socialism and anti-Americanism. Birth-control policy will be one litmus test; the senator opposes U.S. support for programs that condone abortion. Support for America's adversaries will be another; Helms aides have attacked the $120 million annual U.S. subsidy for the Development Fund because it conducts programs in Libya. He may also challenge funding of emergency humanitarian disaster relief ($170 million) and the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund ($100 million).

Few fellow Republicans share Helms's radical opposition to all foreign aid. Aid spending represents only .14 percent of the gross national product, the smallest such contribution of any of the 12 main donor countries, and 70 percent of it actually goes to domestic contractors and farmers. The Agency for International Development, the main U.S. aid agency, already has cut its budget by 20 percent since George Bush left office. When the dust settles, most of the programs will still be standing.