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Political realities obstruct modernizing of food aid

Among the more laudable ideas in President Obama’s budget for fiscal 2014 is a plan to modernize and reform the $1.5 billion U.S. food aid program.

Obama would end “monetization,” the inefficient practice whereby the federal government buys commodities from U.S. farmers and ships them abroad (on U.S.-flagged vessels) to governments and nongovernmental organizations – which sell them and use the proceeds for development projects. Monetization raises costs for U.S. taxpayers while displacing goods produced by farmers overseas.

Alas, Obama’s plan has run into political opposition on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress from both parties have objected, citing the potential losses for U.S. farmers, ports, ships and merchant seamen. Not surprisingly, these senators and representatives generally hail from port cities or farm states.

A bit more surprisingly, perhaps, some of them are from the D.C. area: On April 5, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., sent a letter to the president arguing that his plan “would significantly reduce the amount of U.S. farm products our nation could provide to those in need around the world. It would also threaten our national security preparedness by reducing the domestic sealift capacity on which our U.S. military depends.” Signatories included Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., and Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

Interestingly, two of these legislators told us that they don’t oppose Obama’s plan on its merits. Norton’s spokesman said she “thinks the president’s policy is correct,” but signed the letter as a courtesy to Cummings and because of a collateral concern that food stamps might be affected. Connolly, too, said that Obama’s plan would make sense in “an ideal world,” but that political realities are such that foreign aid cannot get funding unless domestic U.S. constituencies also benefit.

Connolly’s rationale is a familiar one – indeed, it was part of the Eisenhower administration’s original argument for food aid. But poor people abroad have been hostage to interest-group politics in the U.S. long enough. The time has come for some fresh thinking of the sort Rajiv Shah, Obama’s foreign aid administrator, is trying to introduce.

Among the many points Shah makes are that food aid shipments have declined by 64 percent in the last decade anyway, so it’s a bit late for farmers and merchant mariners to be claiming that they can’t survive without them. In fact, farmers are prospering as never before, thanks in part to commercial exports.

As for the merchant marine, the number of U.S.-flagged ships has been in steady decline for decades, yet the U.S. military managed to prosecute several wars overseas. If we need sealift for national security, it would be more transparent to subsidize that directly.

Perhaps it’s true that funding for foreign aid, always politically tenuous, has depended on greasing interest groups. But it’s also true that foreign aid depends on persuading taxpayers in general that their funds are being well spent. And there are more taxpayers than special interests.

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