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White House signals food aid proposal may be issue in farm bill

The White House on Monday signaled that the Obama administration’s proposal to change the U.S. food aid program, often known as P.L.480, may become an issue in final negotiations with Congress over whether President Barack Obama would sign a farm bill.

In the last sentence of its Statement of Administration Policy on the House farm bill, the Office of Management and Budget on Monday said, “Finally, the administration looks forward to working with the Congress to reform the P.L. 480 Title II food aid program in order to provide food aid to starving people faster and feed millions of additional people per year at current funding levels.”

The Obama administration has proposed transforming the program from one that buys U.S. commodities and ships them overseas into one that would provide cash to the U.S. Agency for International Development to buy food near the places where food emergencies exist, and also to distribute cash or coupons to needy people to buy food rather than distributing food.

Congressional farm leaders have shown little interest in the proposal, in part because it would shift jurisdiction of food aid programs from the Agriculture appropriations subcommittees to the Foreign Operations subcommittees.

The Senate-passed version of the farm bill contains some changes to the program, increasing the size of a pilot program for purchases of food in other countries and setting stiffer rules for the monetization or sale of food aid commodities for development purposes.

The House version of the bill makes no significant changes to the program, but House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and ranking member Elliot Engel, D-N.Y., filed an amendment to the farm bill that calls for up to 45 percent of Food for Peace funds to be used for “assistance other than U.S. agricultural commodities” and for curtailing the use of monetization.

Royce and Engel said their proposal would allow the U.S. government to feed 4 million more disaster victims and achieve budget savings.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on the issue on June 12 at which former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios and former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman testified.

The Royce-Engel proposal pits two groups of nonprofit organizations against each other. One group led by Bread for the World and Oxfam favors the change, while the Alliance for Global Food Security, whose members use food aid for development purposes, and most U.S. farm groups, oppose the change.

The U.S. maritime industry and unions also oppose the change. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., have also expressed concerns about the impact of the proposal on the maritime industry.

It would appear unlikely that Royce and Engel would have the votes for such a big change on short notice, but the issue of USAID’s flexibility in handling the food aid account could become an issue in the farm bill conference with the Senate and in final negotiations with the White House.

House Foreign Affairs — Modernizing U.S. International Food Aid: Reaching More For Less
U.S. News — Keeping the Food in Food for Peace
Maritime Workers Letter to House Members