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

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Johanns is working on negotiating a smaller package of changes to the food aid program, now that it’s clear the administration’s proposed overhaul is going nowhere.

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.

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