Lobbying fight erupts on food aid shipping

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A provision tucked inside a Coast Guard reauthorization bill moving through Congress has renewed a lobbying fight that pits international food aid groups against the shipping industry and the AFL-CIO.
 
The House passed the Coast Guard bill this month with a provision, shepherded by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), that would increase the percentage of international food aid that must be shipped on U.S.-flagged vessels.  
 
The Senate Commerce Committee is drafting its version of H.R. 4005, and both sides of the lobbying battle say that the fate of the provision has not been settled yet. 
 
Currently 50 percent of Food for Peace aid tonnage must be shipped on U.S. vessels; the bill would increase that to 75 percent. 
 
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The change reverts the law to 1985-2012 levels, when the surface transportation bill known as MAP-21 was signed into law. The bill included that change as a spending offset.
 
The Obama administration opposes the increase, and on April 17 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees the Coast Guard, urged Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to strike to provision.
 
Acting DHS Assistant Secretary of Legislative Affairs Brian de Vallance said in a letter that the increase would up the cost of shipping food aid by $75 million or more and strip 2 million people of aid.
 
That effect would be magnified by a provision in December’s bipartisan budget deal which eliminated a reimbursement from the Maritime Administration that covered the cost differential of using U.S. ships compared to foreign competitors, the letter stated. Together, the provision would cause 4 million people to go hungry, de Vallance wrote.
 
“This is the shippers and the maritime unions trying to eat a bigger piece of the international food aid budget,” said Gawain Kripke of Oxfam America. “We have been slowly trying to reform the program. We have been making a bit of progress and this would set back that progress.”
 
The shipping industry disputes the DHS figures and argues the provision will save the government in the long run.
 
Bryant Gardner, a spokesman for the shippers and attorney with the law and lobbying firm Winston and Strawn, said that cost is closer to $11 million.
 
“Using cargo preference is a much more efficient way to go,” he said. “What we are talking about is taking a transportation dollar that we already have to spend and instead leveraging that dollar to ensure we have the fleet we have for we need for war and national emergency purposes.”
 
Gardner and other shipping sources argue that maintaining a merchant fleet capable of transporting equipment to war would cost the Pentagon $1 billion in operational costs and $9 billion in capital costs over the same period. He noted that 95 percent of equipment sent to Iraq and Afghanistan was on U.S. commercial vessels.
 
The AFL-CIO’s Seafareres International Union has also made the case that at least 11,000 of the 33,000 jobs involved in transporting the food aid would be at risk. 
 
The shippers, unions and farm groups mostly won a major battle over food aid during the crafting of the farm bill enacted earlier this year. 
 
The Obama administration had proposed a sweeping change to food aid, which would have allowed the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to purchase more food from local farmers abroad.
 
Oxfam and other groups argue that approach is the most cost-effective and eliminates the dumping of U.S. commodities on local markets, something that can have the effect of further impoverishing developing country farmers by taking away their local markets.
 
Kripke noted that the newly enacted farm bill contains an $80 million per year pilot program to allow USAID more flexibility in buying food abroad.
 
Sources on both sides of the fight say that it remains unclear what Rockefeller, who does not represent a state with a major port, will do. 
 
The provision is expected to see support by the Louisiana delegation; however, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) is in a tough reelection fight.
 
It also remains unclear if the Coast Guard reauthorization bill will actually be enacted. Unlike with the annual defense authorization bill, Congress has a spotty record on passing a measure for the Coast Guard and often ends up legislating changes on the annual appropriations bill instead.