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Proposal for Changes in Food Aid Sets Off Infighting in Congress

By Ron Nixon on May 2, 2013
© New York Times

WASHINGTON — A proposal by the Obama administration to overhaul the international food aid program has set off a jurisdictional fight among members of several House and Senate committees, threatening to derail the most significant change to the program since it was created nearly 60 years ago.

The $1.4 billion annual program provides emergency food supplies to disaster-stricken regions across the globe. The United States provides over half of the world’s food aid.

The food aid money is currently part of the Agriculture Department’s budget, but President Obama’s proposal would transfer it to the foreign affairs budget, where it would be overseen by the Agency for International Development. The reorganization would also mean that Congressional oversight of the program would shift from the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees on agriculture to the appropriations subcommittees on foreign operations.

Administration officials say the current program is costly and inefficient, and does not get food quickly enough to the people who need it. By law, the food must be bought from American farmers and shipped on vessels flying American flags, which can sometimes take weeks, with food arriving after a crisis is over, administration officials and development experts say.

Also, because of rising shipping costs, the amount of food the United States sends abroad has fallen, to 1.8 million cubic tons annually from 5 million cubic tons, according to figures from the development agency.

Under the new proposal the agency, or charities working in partnership with it, would use money to buy some food locally, closer to the disaster areas. Fifty-five percent of the food would still be purchased from American farmers.

“This new reform would give us the flexible tools we need to get food to people who need it now, not weeks later,” said Rajiv Shah, the agency’s administrator. “We would still buy from U.S. farmers.”

He added, “But this way we can help feed two to four million more people without additional costs.”

But members of the House and Senate agriculture subcommittees are skeptical.

During hearings last week, Representative Robert B. Aderholt, Republican of Alabama, the chairman of the House agriculture subcommittee, said he was concerned that removing food aid from the agriculture budget would hurt American farmers.

Representative Sam Farr of California, the committee’s ranking Democrat, also questioned the transfer, raising concerns about the subcommittee losing oversight of the program.

“I’m not endorsing the transfer — the realignment — until there are assurances that the program will remain intact and not be raided by other foreign ops interest,” Mr. Farr said at the hearing.

Mr. Farr expressed doubts about the proposal’s chances of success. “I don’t think it will happen this year,” he said. “That’s the politics.”

There has been a similar response from members of the Senate agriculture subcommittee. Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, the chairman of the subcommittee, along with Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, the ranking Republican, both said that they were opposed to transferring food aid dollars out of the agriculture budget.

In February, they joined 19 other senators in sending a letter to the president opposing the measure.

Representative Kay Granger, Republican of Texas, the chairwoman of the House foreign operations subcommittee, which oversees the foreign aid budget, has not said if she will support the Obama administration’s proposal.

But Nita M. Lowey of New York, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, has endorsed the plan to move food aid, as have members of the House and Senate Foreign Affairs Committees.

Representative Ed Royce, Republican of California, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has criticized the administration’s overall budget proposal, but he supports the food aid change.

“The president’s budget proposal to reform the international food program — helping more at less cost — is a bright spot in the budget request,” Mr. Royce said.

Budget experts say Mr. Obama’s proposal will be a tough sell in Congress, where committee members can be parochial and rarely want to give up control of programs.

While it is common for committees to allow agencies to move money from one account to another, experts said it was rare for Congressional appropriators to move money and oversight of a program from one agency to another.

“This is a classic jurisdictional battle among committees,” said Edward A. Brigham, a consultant and former staff member at the White House Office of Management and Budget and at the House Budget Committee. “No one wants to give up their area of control.”

Mr. Brigham said lawmakers could vote to move the money through the appropriations process or just to authorize the change in the next farm bill, which falls under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. Members of those committees have already voiced their opposition to the proposal.

“Food aid is in need of reform for all the hungry people in the world who depend on it,” said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Christian antihunger group that supports the Obama administration’s proposal. “But it’s going to be difficult to get anything through Congress, particularly because of the jurisdictional issues.”

A version of this article appeared in print on May 3, 2013, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Proposal for Changes in Food Aid Sets Off Infighting in Congress.

 

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