By Allison Sherry, Star Tribune

GOP Rep. Tom Emmer is the first to acknowledge how much he is learning in his first 100 days of his first term in Congress serving Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District: the Capitol Hill hierarchy, the importance of making a few early friends on the other side of the aisle, and the reality of a good night’s sleep on an air mattress. (Emmer isn’t renting a D.C. apartment; he sleeps in his office.)

This House committee was not something Emmer initially sought. He wanted a higher profile, more prestigious perch on Transportation or Financial Services. But after the assignments were doled out by leadership, Emmer pledged to dive in.

Taking a trip earlier this month with other lawmakers to Ethiopia and Kenya opened his eyes more than any Washington briefing.

“I know the attitude, and I’ve been guilty of it myself: Why would you invest over there instead of building bridges, building schools, doing stuff here?” he said. “It is all about economics and national security. People don’t realize that. I’m learning in even more detail that our national defense and our diplomacy are intertwined.”

In an interview, Emmer talked about what the streets smelled like, how strong the coffee there was and how he ran into a herd of goat farmers while trying to get to a meeting.

Then he shifted to his grand lesson: the importance of the U.S. ­investments abroad. The U.S. distributes about $40 billion through 21 agencies in foreign assistance a year — roughly 1 percent of the annual budget of $3.65 trillion. Of that $40 billion, Africa gets about $9.5 billion.

Emmer spent the week mostly meeting with farmers and entrepreneurs. He talked about a dairy co-op in Eldoret, Kenya, where the owner was hacking out a living on one-third of an acre using hydroponics and a special feed that boosts milk production. He told the story of a woman who was amid managing several residential construction projects and developing a telecom business.

Asked whether he believed in increasing the foreign aid budget, Emmer said he wasn’t sure, but he was impressed with the programs he saw and would favor expanding them.

“You could make a choice certainly to spend it … on bombs, bullets and boots on the ground or you could help these emerging countries on imparted knowledge and technical support and experience to allow them to improve their economic status,” he said. “If these programs keep raising people’s economic situation, their quality of life, their standard of living, it actually results in a direct benefit for us. Because they don’t want anything to do with Al-Shabab.”