By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If James Bond can reinvent himself for a post-Cold War world, U.S. foreign aid should be able to as well, said Howard Berman, a U.S. lawmaker from California who on Wednesday proposed a sweeping overhaul of the system for doling out assistance.
In one of the last actions of his 15-term House of Representatives career, the liberal Democrat unveiled a 923-page bill to replace the old foreign aid law passed in 1961, around the height of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Reflecting its era, the existing law still requires that the U.S. president pledge to Congress that aid recipients are not "controlled by the international Communist conspiracy."
Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a former chairman of that committee, said he spent five years working on the bill, which overhauls the Foreign Aid Assistance Act of 1961 and the Arms Export Control Act.
He said the proposed new structure is long overdue in an era when foreign aid is politically polarized and politicians obsessed with "the crisis of the moment."
The bill's many provisions are intended to make foreign aid more effective, strengthen oversight, eliminate duplication, slash red tape, improve transparency and leverage private investments - ever more important in a world of shrinking government funds.
The United States is the world's largest donor nation, but U.S. foreign aid compromises just 1 percent - or $32 billion - of the national budget. Even so, it is a favorite target of politicians who want to cut the budget further. During his failed presidential campaign this year, Republican candidate Mitt Romney was sharply critical of U.S. foreign aid.
"Little by little, people are losing confidence in why we're giving foreign assistance and I think a serious effort to make it stronger and better and to have documents and to have transparency ... helps build support for it," Berman told reporters.
Berman won't be returning when the newly elected Congress convenes next year after losing a tough re-election fight. The redrawing of the boundaries of his district forced him to compete against another Democrat, Brad Sherman, who won the seat.
Berman acknowledged that his proposal, already the result of a long effort, faces long odds of becoming law. It would have to pass the House, where Republicans are the majority, and then it would have to get through the U.S. Senate.
U.S. Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat and fellow member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is the bill's only co-sponsor.
But Berman insisted the changes are necessary. "Our hope is it won't just go to the dustbin," he said.
At a news conference unveiling the bill, he said, "If James Bond can adapt to the post-Cold War era, so can foreign aid."
(Editing by Susan Cornwell and David Brunnstrom)