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Why should we slash foreign aid? Look no further than Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn
Carlos Barria | Reuters
Michael Flynn

At first, President Donald Trump's decision to fire then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn looked like a typical case of a new administration wilting under media pressure and succumbing to a certain degree of infighting.

But with today's revelation that Flynn spent some part of 2016 as a paid lobbyist for a company owned by a Turkish businessman, the decision seems a bit more prudent. Because that's exactly the kind of thing that stands in the way of a crucial Trump administrative initiative: Cutting foreign aid.

The whole industry of foreign lobbying and foreign aid in general shines a light on the disconnect between the political class and the American people.

This isn't a Democrat or Republican issue. Both parties have an equal number of partisans who have worked, or are working, on behalf of foreign governments. Their goals can sometimes be more about moral support and posturing, but most of the time these lobbyists are getting paid big bucks to secure the much bigger bucks of U.S. foreign aid.

To the political class, lobbying is no big deal and neither is lobbying on behalf of a foreign country that may or may not be so friendly to the United States. Lobbyists are part of the political class after all, and they aren't going to see anything wrong with one of their own. The rest of the American public, in poll after poll, sees it just the opposite. And President Trump's policy of banning members of his cabinet from ever working as a lobbyist for a foreign country is possibly the best example of his promise to listen to the people and "drain the swamp" in Washington.

But now, President Trump is trying to go even further by going at the source of the problem directly. The White House has been floating a plan to take a whopping 37 percent cut to the State Department's foreign aid budget. Right on cue, members of both parties jumped to oppose the plan. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his fellow GOP Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio immediately called the proposal a bad idea that wouldn't pass the Senate anyway.

Democrats in Congress, led by House Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Eliot Engel called the proposal "short-sighted and dangerous." And then everyone opposed to the cuts eventually went into the usual defense mantra insisting that foreign aid is less than 1 percent of the budget, it's used to help the poor and sick, and cutting it could lead to more wars and carnage.

That's funny, because the opposite hasn't proved true. Under President Obama, the State Department's total budget went up more than 31 percent from $38.3 billion to $50.3 billion in 2016. But nobody would say we've seen less violence or more foreign stability in that time, (Syria, anyone?). And even fewer people would say America's standing and image in the world is better than it was in 2009.

And then there's the dishonesty and cherry-picking of the pro-foreign aid crowd. Predictably, every time someone wants to cut a big program opponents of that plan speak only of the most sympathetic and popular parts of that program. It's true that U.S. foreign aid has helped to reduce poverty and hunger for millions of people around the world, but no one is saying the cuts need to come out of those specific subsections of our aid.

Similar tactics are used when people call for defense cuts and their opponents immediately talk about how that could threaten U.S. security while they gloss over outrages like $10,000 Pentagon staplers and much more costly troop deployments in foreign theaters that are no longer volatile.

In other words, opponents of cuts always think they can get away with fending off budget threats by putting a proverbial gun to the head of the most needed and justified parts of those programs. With a big assist from the political class media in Washington, this strategy usually works.

Electing a decidedly non-politician like President Trump could change that. In addition to his 37 percent cut proposal, the White House is also reviewing all foreign aid programs that total $50.1 billion per year. That doesn't sound like the president is just going to blindly swing an ax and will prioritize these cuts instead.

It may seem like making those cuts will still be impossible, given the power of the political class and its uniform opposition. But the Trump forces have a magic bullet to defeat that opposition, and White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Mick Mulvaney revealed it during an interview last weekend with the following money quote:

"We are going to propose to reduce foreign aid and we are going to propose to spend that money here."

Okay, that's not exactly the Gettysburg Address. But that's the point. It's simple and easy, and simple is not only effective in politics, it's essential. I dare any Member of Congress, lobbyist, or table-pounding cable news anchor to beat the potency Mulvaney's simple message will have with the strong majority of the American people. The political class scoffed at "Make America great again" too, but it worked. Remember that the political class hides behind complicated structures, like budgets and 1000-page laws, etc. That's not how the American people think, talk, or operate.

And that brings us back to Flynn, who could have complicated this foreign aid cutting package with the revelation of his work as a foreign lobbyist. That work, (for which he made more than $500,000 last year), made him the epitome of the political class. Now, not only is he out of the administration, but the Trump team can use the fact of his ouster as proof of how it has already made sacrifices of its own to advance this cause. In other words, the White House has dodged a bullet with Flynn and now has that magic bullet fired by Mulvaney.

The push to make these cuts is still going to be a battle royal against a powerfully entrenched and well-funded opponent, but this time the odds are a little more even. Trump is now armed with a team that has fewer past entanglements in foreign lobbying and cannot ever get back into that business again. And most importantly, he has a very simple and effective message he can repeat and tweet as much as he likes. Bottom line: One of the beloved programs of the political class is definitely in serious trouble.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.