Obama budget sets up congressional fight over food aid

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.”

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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.”