WASHINGTON, Oct. 14, 2015 - The Obama administration’s effort to shift more international food aid away from U.S. commodities is struggling to gain any traction on the Hill, despite some success in the farm bill and strong support from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Part of the reason may be the stiff pushback from the House Agriculture Committee.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce expresses frustration that Congress continues to resist the U.S. Agency for International Development’s plan to use significantly more Food for Peace funding for cash vouchers or local and regional procurement (LRP) of aid rather than relying almost exclusively on U.S. commodities. “We need to embrace common sense reforms that allow us to use the right tool, at the right time, in the right place,” Royce, R-Calif., said in opening a recent hearing on the issue.

Critics of the administration’s plan argue that there would be less political support for Food for Peace if it isn’t seen as benefitting U.S. farmers and shipping companies. That argument typically comes from farm and shipping interests or participating NGOs. But a Democrat on the committee with no stake in either the farm or shipping sectors, Virginia’s Gerry Connolly, suggests the fear is well-founded.

Connolly, who once managed an anti-hunger organization and worked as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says there’s scant support in Congress any more for foreign aid in general.

“Can one really imagine a Bob Dole, a George McGovern, coming together in this Congress to support the new food aid program? Really?” Connolly said to a panel of witnesses that included former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and ex-USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, both Democrats. Dole and McGovern, of course, were the political odd couple in an earlier generation that got together to push for both domestic and international nutrition assistance programs.

“Just how easy will it be to put together a coalition that will readily support this kind of intervention long-term in terms of appropriating dollars?” Connolly asked.

“Not easy, but not impossible,” Glickman responded.

“You all did it in the last farm bill,” Glickman went on. He was referring to a provision that authorized using a relatively small portion of Food for Peace -- up to $80 million a year -- for local and regional procurement. But it’s not yet clear how much -- or even if any -- of that funding will be provided. House appropriators didn’t include any such funding in their fiscal 2016 spending bill. The Senate version has $20 million.

The top Democrat on House Foreign Affairs, Eliot Engel of New York, tells Agri-Pulse he isn’t giving up on the proposed reforms. “You just keep pushing the issue … Ultimately, I think common sense is on our side.” He said the House Agriculture Committee’s resistance reflects the concerns of agriculture interests.

House Agriculture has held three hearings that among other things have highlighted the benefit of the current program to agriculture and the potential fraud problems in voucher programs.

The committee chairman, Mike Conaway, R-Texas, says agriculture must be kept “at the table, in the conversations” when it comes to running Food for Peace. “Maintaining support across a broad section of Americans for these programs is going to be vital as we look at scarce resources,” he said. 

His committee’s next hearing will look into the shipping issues. Half the aid must be shipped on U.S.-flagged carriers, which raises the cost an average of 23 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., told an audience at the University of Arkansas earlier this week that the plan to shift food aid away from U.S. sources won’t get through Congress.

Boozman says the problem is the lack of a constituency for overseas donations. Currently, “you have a situation where you're actually selling products, you've got shippers, you've got farmers, you have a constituency; it all works together,” he told Agri-Pulse. The system, he said, “is good for the countries involved; it's good for Americans, and good for American farmers and the shippers involved.”


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