What explains the weird way Congress voted down food aid reform?

Food Farm Market
Flickr, pinehurst19475

The recent defeat in Congress of legislation aimed at improving the efficiencies of our foreign efforts to feed the hungry didn’t fall into the normal partisan divisions, or even expected special interest categories.

The Obama Administration has proposed changes to our nation’s uniquely wasteful and self-serving system of food aid (which requires we buy only American food and ship only on American-flagged vessels, to be distributed by American humanitarian groups). Experts say we could feed anywhere from 4 to 10 million more hungry people a year for the same amount of money if we just bought some of the food overseas and cut transportation/distribution costs.

But this most reasonable (and arguably, morally superior) proposal is not going anywhere, with bleeding-heart liberals voting against the proposal to improve food aid while red-white-and-blue semi-isolationist conservatives voted for reforming food aid. What the heck is going on?

We’ve tried to dig into an apparent split (since healed?) on this within the humanitarian community, here and here. Below is a map of the way Congress voted on food aid reform. Can somebody explain this wackiness?


Members voted on an amendment to the Farm Bill to enact changes to the way that the US delivers and procures food aid. The changes would allow for some of the money spent in emergency situations to go towards non-American food sellers. The goal was to save money and speed up the emergency response by the US. Members of the House of Representatives voted the amendment down with 220 against and 203 for.

AidData provides this handy map to illustrate the breakdown of votes for (blue) and against (red) the amendment. The final vote was not down party lines, in fact it was just about evenly split between Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the question. Furthermore, trends do not seem too apparent. East Coast districts voted against, possibly under the influence of the shipping sector that opposed the amendment, but it does not hold for California and most of Florida. The middle part of the country largely voted against despite support from the farm industry and no clear ties to the groups strongly opposing the bill.

All this raises the question, what happened?

Oxfam America director of policy and research Gwain Kripke dove into the data today in a blog post. There he shares the numbers and provides some snapshot analysis. One interesting find is that 83% of the voting Agriculture Committee members opposed the amendment. It had a lot of support in the Foreign Affairs Committee (70%). Kripke says it reflects a turf war between the two committees over the amendment. He also points out the inconsistencies of the voting along the coast.

The ‘iron-triangle’ of special interests that resist food aid reform includes agricultural commodity groups, agribusiness, ports, and shippers.  The map shows some correlation to these interests, although there are many exceptions. For example, in regional coastal blocs, where you would assume maritime lobbies were active on this issue, votes were inconsistent:

  • New England coast & NY: all either YES or around 50%
  • DE & NJ: NO MD south to
  • FL Atlantic coast: all either YES or around 50%
  • Gulf Coast: NO from AL west to TX
  • Eastern Great Lakes (PA, OH, MI): NO
  • Western & Central Great Lakes (IN, IL, WI, MN): YES or 50%
  • South & Central Pacific coast in CA, OR: YES or 50%
  • PacNW & islands: NOES in WA, AK, HI

Kripke resits from looking too much into the fact that food aid reform had more support than the Farm Bill itself (which also failed). He points to a Politico column about the Farm Bill by David Rogers who makes the case that food aid reform and crop insurance are two areas that saw bipartisan support. He says that they may pave a path to compromise for the Farm Bill and feature heavily in renewed negotiations.

Revisiting food stamps now is probably too dangerous. But House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) was one of the 62 and lost only narrowly, 203-220, on his amendment to reform international food aid. Royce had help from 45 other Republicans among the 62. Food aid reform is a priority for the White House and lends itself to compromise.

Check out our previous coverage on food aid reform to learn more about the debate, here.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.