Costly, inefficient and skewed to benefit domestic special interests rather than starving people overseas, U.S. food aid programs are overdue for reform. Both President Barack Obama and his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, advocated such changes, only to be defeated by maritime and agriculture lobbies on Capitol Hill. The most recent farm bill, signed into law by Obama in February, included a few remnants of the president’s ambitious plans to buy and distribute more food grown near recipients abroad, as opposed to the costly current practice of shipping U.S.-grown products on U.S.-flagged ships. Basically, though, the old system, which treats food aid as a means of subsidizing U.S. farmers and shipping companies rather than of just helping the hungry, remained intact.
Or so it seemed until April 1, when the House of Representatives approved a measure that would actually take a step backward. Specifically, the House passed an appropriations bill for the Coast Guard with a provision that would require 75 percent of all U.S. food aid to travel on U.S.-flagged vessels, up from 50 percent under current law. The U.S. Agency for International Development says the bill would increase annual shipping costs by $75 million, an expense that will have to be subtracted directly from the amount of food it can afford to distribute. And USAID is already facing a $75 million funding cut, because the 2014 House-Senate budget agreement ended payments it received from the U.S. Maritime Administration to defray the costs of the “cargo preference” for U.S. food aid.
Though the bill effectively returns U.S. policy to the status quo of 30 years ago, we can’t fault the measure’s sponsor, California Republican Duncan D. Hunter, for lacking candor. A standard justification for the cargo preference subsidy to U.S. ships is that the country needs to maintain a merchant marine fleet in case of military emergency. “The secondary reason for food aid is food,” Hunter told the Wall Street Journal. “The No. 1 reason is military readiness.” The only problem with that is that the Defense Department avowed last year that reform would affect fewer than a dozen vessels, none of which is militarily useful.
Politically unrealistic though it may be to reform food aid in the short term, at least Congress can avoid making matters worse. Though the House measure slipped through on a voice vote before opponents could mobilize, the Obama administration and nongovernmental organizations that support reform are urging the Senate to delete the House provision from its version of the Coast Guard funding bill. Senators should not only follow that advice but also look for ways to rekindle the reform effort that fell short in the farm bill debate.