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Lawmakers Nix Obama’s Food Aid Overhaul, but Discuss Compromise

A White House-proposed overhaul of the United States’ $1.4 billion food aid program is not going to happen, at least not in as ambitious a form as the administration requested in its fiscal 2014 budget.

Lawmakers and officials with the U.S. Agency for International Development are now in negotiations on a smaller package of changes that supporters of the overhaul hope could pave the way for incremental updates to the system of food aid delivery.

The administration’s proposal, which would have loosened requirements on how much of the food the United States sends to hungry people around the world has to come from U.S. farmers on U.S. ships, “is just way too far, way too aggressive,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Agriculture and Appropriations committees. It “never had much of a chance.”

That sentiment is shared by members of both chambers, Democrats and Republicans alike.

“The administration tried to bite off too much and didn’t lay the groundwork,” one senior Senate aide said.

In addition to a proposal to allow much as 45 percent of U.S. emergency food assistance to be sourced locally, the White House wanted to move jurisdiction for the international food assistance program, known as Food for Peace, from the Agriculture committees and Agriculture Appropriations subcommittees to the authorizers and appropriators that oversee the State Department and foreign aid.

That prompted strong pushback from the farming industry, as well as lawmakers who represent those agricultural interests, who balked at giving up that piece of their turf.

Backers of the program, including USAID chief Rajiv Shah and humanitarian groups, argue that being able to source food locally gives them and their partners more flexibility, and the potential to take advantage of cheaper, fast food sources when possible. And supporters argue that it makes sense for the funding to be in the foreign aid appropriation, because USAID oversees much of the program already. They also note that buying some food aid overseas would have a minimal affect on U.S. farmers’ bottom lines.

The Obama administration also sought to end the practice, known as “monetization,” of selling U.S. food abroad for cash as a way to raise money for international development projects, which studies have shown does not generally get high returns on the dollar.

Despite Obama’s efforts, those on both sides of the debate now say that the food assistance programs will stay under the Agriculture committees. That was affirmed in the House and Senate farm bills (HR 1947, S 954) that are currently making their way through both chambers, and echoed by senators on both the Agriculture and State and Foreign Operations Appropriations subcommittees.

The flexibility the administration was seeking on local procurement of food is also expected to be scaled back drastically, although there are still discussions about giving the government more money for local food purchases.

“I think there is an option to boost some funding for emergency aid,” said Johanns, which he said “makes sense because there are certain instances where you need food at the site really fast.”

“I would support an effort to try and deal with those circumstances,” he said.

According to Johanns, there are a “number of vehicles” under consideration on that front. One possibility, he said, is to increase by some smaller percentage the amount of money allowed to be spent on emergency food aid overseas, although it would be well less than the 45 percent that was the maximum amount allowed in the White House request.

Looking for Common Ground

The Senate farm bill that is currently on the floor proposes extending an existing pilot program on local procurement for emergency food crises, making it a small, but permanent, program. And Johanns and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., have an amendment that would increase the amount of money for that program to $60 million a year. Another option is to move some amount of money into the State Department’s International Disaster Assistance fund to buy food overseas in emergencies.

“Right now everybody’s just trying to figure out whether there’s any common ground,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., another member of the Agriculture and Appropriations committees. Boozman said his support “depends on what the compromise is.”

Advocates of the overhaul are still pushing for an end to the monetization program.

“We are not expecting from what we hear” for it “to be addressed in the farm bill,” said Blake A. Selzer, senior policy advocate at CARE, an international humanitarian organization. But, he said, it could get addressed in the fiscal 2014 appropriations bills.

Johanns sounded a note of caution on changes to that program, as well. “I think you’ve got to be very, very careful about limiting that ability, because I think it’s done a lot of good in the past,” he said. “I know it gets criticized but oftentimes what a country is looking for is somebody who will come in and offer a way forward to produce a commodity like milk or whatever. Monetizing the food gives you the ability to do that.”

Selzer said that despite the scaled-back expectations for changes to food aid programs this year, he remains encouraged by what he sees as a “significant shift in the conversation” amid the heightened attention being paid to the issue.

He and other humanitarian groups have highlighted the fact that members of the agricultural industry, such as the National Farmers Union and the private food producer Cargill, have come out in support of increasing how much U.S. food aid can be locally sourced to give donors more flexibility.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum for reform, much more so than in the past year or two,” Selzer said.

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