The U.S. gave an estimated $1.157 billion in foreign aid to Pakistan in fiscal 2013. That’s a sliver of the federal budget—or even of just the defense budget—but any way you shave it, a billion dollars is not nothing.
Then again, neither is the government’s interest in keeping Pakistan stable. Along with being home to nearly 200 million people, the country is a key fulcrum in the U.S. global campaign against Al Qaida and other self-identified Muslim terrorist organizations. It wields tremendous influence over Afghanistan. And, lest anyone forget, it’s the owner of a nuclear weapon.
But even if the funding is deemed to be critical to national security, if the U.S. can find approximately $1.16 billion for Pakistan, can it not find approximately $560 million to fund a program to help soldiers pay their college tuition?
That was the argument of Texas Republican Rep. Ted Poe, author of the 2013 “Sequester Pakistan Act,” which would freeze fiscal year 2013 aid to Pakistan until the Defense Department’s Military Tuition Assistance Program received at least the same amount of funding it got in fiscal year 2012. Poe’s program followed announcements in March by the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard that the program would be suspended for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year to help overcome larger budget cuts mandated by sequestration. The Navy —which spent approximately $84 million in the 2012 fiscal year — didn’t suspend its program.
Despite Poe’s gusto—and despite all the political expediency of siding with U.S. soldiers over a nominal foreign ally whose cooperation is inconsistent at best—the bill went exactly nowhere. After its March introduction, the measure went to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and from there it quietly faded.
The bill was hardly alone. Of the 600-plus pieces of defense-related legislation introduced in the House in 2013, more than two-thirds were simply referred to a committee and never heard from again.
Most of those bills, Poe’s included, were not introduced in the hopes of passing. For many, it’s the act of introducing them that’s the point. When Poe rolled out his sequester Pakistan plan, he used it as an opportunity to criticize—and to some extent distort—the way the Obama administration was dealing with the mandatory spending cuts of the sequester.
It’s a bipartisan tactic. New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy introduced an assault weapons ban in the House in January—a chamber where even much milder gun-control legislation would have gone nowhere. But she used the introduction as an opportunity to speak publicly about gun violence.
California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee introduced a measure in February that would create a cabinet-level Department of Peacebuilding. Introducing the bill is a bi-annual tradition that has been repeated every session since former Democrat Dennis Kucinich started it in 2001.
And, every now and then, something unexpected happens and one of the moon-shot measures lands.
That’s what happened to Poe—at least in part. Pakistan is still slated to receive U.S. foreign aid, but members of Congress passed legislation earlier this year directing the Pentagon to reverse the sequester’s effects on assistance for military tuition for the 2013 fiscal year.
The Coast Guard, which doesn’t fall under the Defense Department but the Department of Homeland Defense, wasn’t affected by the legislation, but it also restarted its tuition assistance program.