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After tax reform victory, Trump team's next big win will be cutting foreign aid

  • The Trump team and the GOP are looking for a new issue to build on their current tax reform momentum.
  • They may have stumbled on it at the U.N. last week by re-introducing the idea of cutting foreign aid.
  • Opposition to the level of foreign aid has been high in America for more than 45 years.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley is seen during the Security Council meeting.
Pacific Press | Getty Images
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley is seen during the Security Council meeting.

Now that the Republican tax reform bill is signed into law and the individual mandate for Obamacare doomed along with it, there's another issue President Donald Trump and the GOP should can tackle to maintain their winning streak.

President Trump is floating the idea of a big infrastructure plan. House Speaker Paul Ryan is focusing on entitlement reform.

But both of those projects are the epitome of political heavy lifting and this administration and the GOP Congress may not have enough juice left to get them across the finish line in just a year, and during a midterm election cycle to boot.

If the White House and the congressional Republicans want to build positive momentum, the answer is clear. In fact, the Trump administration has actually already started to address it. That issue is foreign aid. That is, the tens of billions of dollars the U.S. sends to other countries for economic and military aid.

The total foreign aid budget per year is about $50 billion, up dramatically from $35 billion in 2014. That number needs to be considered once again early next year as part of the White House budget proposal for 2019. It makes the issue both a policy and legislative priority.

"Who says America is hopelessly split on every issue? When it comes to foreign aid, this country is practically singing Kumbaya."

The Trump team put this issue into play again last week at the United Nations. That's when U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley warned General Assembly members not to vote against the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. In that warning she said that the U.S. would be "taking names" to learn which one of our supposed allies was really on our side and still deserving of our financial aid. She then quickly announced that the U.S. has slashed $285 million from the U.N.'s budget for next year.

Let's just say there was no national outrage in response.

The reason why opposition was muted was probably the fact that U.S. foreign aid has long been very unpopular among American voters. For most of the last 45 years, polls have consistently shown that Americans believe the U.S. is spending too much on foreign aid. In fact for most years since 1972, those polls have shown 60 percent to 70 percent voter agreement in opposition to the amount of foreign aid spending. The latest poll on the issue, just published by Rasmussen Reports, shows 57 percent of respondents saying the projected amount of foreign aid is too high versus just 6 percent who say it isn't enough and 27 percent who say it's just right.

Who says America is hopelessly split on every issue? When it comes to foreign aid, this country is practically singing Kumbaya.

A couple of disclaimers and clarifications on this issue are necessary. The first is that those who think cutting foreign aid will make a significant dent in our federal deficit are misinformed. Foreign aid programs still only account for less than one percent of annual spending.

Second, it's important to be cautious when looking at how this issue is presented to voters. When polls ask Americans if they would choose to simply cut "foreign aid" spending, those overwhelming numbers in favor of such cuts show up every time. But when polls adjust the wording and ask about providing aid to "needy people around the world," enthusiasm for cuts subsides significantly. Americans continue to be the most generous and charitable people in the world; and we respond accordingly to anything that sounds more like a charitable endeavor.

But the very idea of sending economic aid overseas as a policy and not for emergencies has been generally unpopular ever since the economic malaise of the 1970s. This isn't even a unique American phenomenon. Britain is currently embroiled in a fierce call by many voters in the U.K. to cut back on its foreign aid programs in order to buck up the financially struggling National Health Service.

To put it simply, if the Trump administration and the Republicans made a big public show of taking a bigger ax to foreign aid it would be a safe and popular political move.

But that leads to another question: Would it be a wise move other than at the polls?

A strong argument can be made that with China and Russia mobilizing to gain global influence, this is not the time for the U.S. to cut existing and potential allies off in any way. Of course, that argument's strength depends greatly on looking at what positive benefits decades of that aid has produced for the U.S. so far. Those benefits are debatable. Last week's resounding rebuke at the U.N. against the Jerusalem decision would seem to indicate we haven't been getting much bang for our buck.

Another factor to consider is that the Trump team often considers America's overall defense budget to be a better way to show support for our allies and world stability. For the record, President Trump pushed for and got a $700 billion defense budget deal earlier this year that included increases in spending to meet the threats North Korea poses to the U.S. and our allies like Japan. But even on the defense side, President Trump has pushed our NATO allies to pay for more of their defense and that effort seems to have worked.

With that success in mind and all those polls to prove it, it sure seems like the Trump team has a winner on its hands if it continues to focus on cutting foreign aid. No, it's not going to be the game-changer that tax reform and effectively repealing Obamacare could be.

But this administration needs wins any way they can get them. Taking an ax to foreign aid is an easy win the Trump team should take.

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

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