Obama budget sets up congressional fight over food aid
The Hill -- JULIAN PECQUET
President Obama's budget proposes overhauling the nation's $1.5 billion-a-year food aid program, setting up a bruising battle on Capitol Hill that cuts across party lines.
In one corner are farm state lawmakers who want the government to continue buying U.S.-grown food and shipping it abroad. In the other: reform proponents who agree with Obama that the current system is a waste of taxpayer money that only harms poor countries' ability to grow their own food.
“After nearly 60 years of experience, we are encouraged by the President’s proposal to fundamentally alter our food aid program to reach more people, more quickly, at less cost,” Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a joint statement. “Several recent studies have highlighted the need for reform. We look forward to working with the Administration and our colleagues in Congress to modernize U.S. food aid programs while ensuring maximum impact and efficiency.”
They'll have a tough time convincing their colleagues on agricultural panels. Twenty-one senators wrote to Obama opposing the overhaul when rumors first emerged.
“American agriculture is one of the few U.S. business sectors to produce a trade surplus, exporting $108 billion in farm goods in 2010,” they wrote. “During this time of economic distress, we should maintain support for the areas of our economy that are growing.”
The letter was signed by the chairmen of the Agriculture and Agricultural appropriations panels – Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) – and by ranking members Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), as well as by Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md).
“When President Eisenhower signed into law legislation authorizing the program, he explained that the purpose was to 'lay the foundation for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands',” they wrote. “This program has been instrumental in linking rural America and the U.S. agriculture and transportation industries to communities in the developing world while building greater awareness and support at home for the needs of the poor, hungry and disenfranchised around the world.”
Proponents of the way the program operates now say it supports three vital U.S. interests: Farmers who can sell their surplus to the government and keep prices high; American ships and crews that are guaranteed the traffic and have an incentive to remain under U.S. flag, providing the U.S. Navy with potential equipment and manpower; and non-governmental organizations that sell excess U.S. food on foreign markets and use the proceeds to fund development projects.
Critics say the program is a Cold War relic that's only harming poor countries by flooding their markets with artificially cheap U.S. food. They point to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report that found that the government could save $219 million over three years by giving NGOs cash instead of food to sell.
Obama's proposal would move the Food for Peace program from the Department of Agriculture to the U.S. Agency for International Development, setting up a turf war on Capitol Hill. While most of the funding would still be used to buy U.S. food, the budget gives the agency the flexibility to use food aid funding to “purchase food from markets near crises, or for interventions such as cash transfers and vouchers.”
The budget would reallocate $75 million for a new “Emergency Food Assistance Contingency Fund to address above-trend emergency food needs.” And it would allocate $25 million to the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration for subsidies for “militarily useful vessels and incentives to facilitate the retention of mariners.”