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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 StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowDemocratic senator votes against advancing Amy Coney Barrett nomination while wearing RBG mask Healthcare, retirement security seen as top issues for older voters, lawmakers say Dems to focus on issues, not character, at Barrett hearings MORE (D-Mich.) and Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorCoronavirus poses risks for Trump in 2020 Tom Cotton's only Democratic rival quits race in Arkansas Medicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 MORE (D-Ark.) – and by ranking members Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranObama endorses Espy in Mississippi Senate race Espy wins Mississippi Senate Democratic primary Bottom Line MORE (R-Miss.) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntPower players play chess match on COVID-19 aid GOP to Trump: Focus on policy Low-flying helicopters to measure radiation levels in DC before inauguration MORE (R-Mo.), as well as by Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiForeign policy congressional committees need to call more women experts Lobbying World Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (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.”