The six-month congressional battle over how the U.S. provides international food aid is coming to a head.
Lawmakers negotiating in the House-Senate farm bill conference could make decisions as soon as this week on the issue, which has split Democrats and Republicans and pitted the White House against its union allies.
Conference committee staffers have been focusing on resolving such trade issues so that lawmakers can get down to business on the biggest sticking points in the talks: namely, food stamp cuts and how farm subsidies relate to market prices.
But the divide on food aid has so far been difficult to bridge.
The administration and some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are backing provisions in the Senate farm bill that would replace some of the food shipped abroad with cash vouchers.
The Senate provisions, approved by voice vote, allow 20 percent of food aid to be used flexibly and quintuples funding for a flexibility pilot program to $60 million per year.
The administration says such changes are needed because shipping food abroad is costly, with the supplies often arriving too slowly. In his April 2014 budget, President Obama proposed allowing up to 45 percent of food aid dollars to be used to buy food in the region of a country in need.
But shipping industry and major labor unions are opposed to providing cash aid, arguing it would cause economic pain back at home.
USA Maritime, a coalition of shipping companies and unions, has launched a lobbying blitz to kill the Senate provisions.
“It may be lost on folks that it is really a domestic jobs program,” said spokesman Clint Eisenhauer, who works for Danish shipping giant Maersk Inc. He said the Senate bill threatens many of the 15,500 direct jobs in the shipping industry.
The House farm bill keeps in place the old aid system, which requires that all food aid be shipped directly from the U.S. and that half of that be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels.
The House narrowly defeated an amendment that closely tracked the Obama proposal by a 203-220 vote, and the opposition of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department was seen as crucial in getting 94 Democrats to oppose the amendment.
Now that the issue is in conference, unions are putting pressure on members of the conference committee to go with the House’s plan.
The American Maritime Officers, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, the International Organization of Master, Mates and Pilot, and the Seafarer’s International Union on Oct. 29 sent a letter to the farm bill conference urging them to reject the Senate’s approach to food aid.
In addition to the jobs impact, Eisenhauer said the Senate bill could harm national security by shrinking the ability of the Merchant Marine to provide support to the military in times of conflict.
Charity groups in favor of the Senate provision say the jobs and military impact of the policy change is exaggerated.
“The argument has a lot of holes in it,” said Timi Gerson of the American Jewish World Service.
She cited a letter from the Pentagon that estimated a much smaller impact on jobs and no damage to military readiness.
Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall in June wrote to the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in support of cash aid. He said shifting the program would, at most, would affect 11 ships and 495 mariners.
“[T]he department supports the president’s proposed reforms of food aid programs and has assessed that it will not impact U.S. maritime readiness and national security,” Kendall wrote.
Gerson said the shipping industry, much more than growers, represents the biggest obstacle to changing the policy, with the strongest opposition coming from members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
She said that compromise could be found in at least allowing the pilot program, which the House would defund, to continue.
The fact that the proponents of reform include Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking member Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) is a sign that some change will be made to the House provisions, Gerson predicted.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) opposed the House reform amendment. Among Democrats, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) supported reform, but assistant leader Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Education and the Workforce ranking member George Miller (D-Calif.) voted “no.”
Eric Muñoz of Oxfam America, which supports the Senate plan, said negotiators from the House appears to be standing firm.
“We have not seen a willingness in the House to move toward the Senate position,” Muñoz said, adding that the group has been “hitting the pavement hard realizing that this is one of the first issue likely to be resolved.”
NGO representatives noted major farm groups are not as united against reform as they have been in the past.
Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union, came out in favor of compromise in May, even though the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Bob Stallman announced the bureau was against changes to the Food for Peace program.