Congress has again preserved American exceptionalism, and in so doing ensured millions more people in poor countries will go hungry.
The Obama Administration has proposed changing our food aid system, which nearly all aid and development experts agree is inefficient and self-serving due to the uniquely American requirement that we buy food here from American farmers and ship it overseas on American ships. On Wednesday, the House had a chance to change this by voting on legislation to reform food aid – a bill regarded by many as a very modest step in the right direction.
The arguments against it were bipartisan and focused mostly on how the changes would affect us, as opposed to the needy overseas:
- “[Food aid] is not broken. It is about humanitarian, economic and national security…We don’t need to destroy something that’s worked for fifty years,” claimed Rep. John Garamendi of California.
- Rep. Nick Rahall, from West Virgina, argued, “The effect would be to undermine the integrity of our maritime fleet…Once these jobs are gone, they’re gone forever.”
- And Rep. Rob Andrews from New Jersey worried the act would open the door to “corruption” of US food aid in poor countries. Another representative claimed that food aid would no longer be branded with the American flag.
Ed Royce, a Republican who represents California’s 39th district and co-authored the amendment aimd at reforming food aid, called those ideas “myths.” And they are. Royce chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee and knows what he’s talking about.
“We are not talking about sending bags of cash so they can spend it on whatever they want,” he explained. “US labels will still be prominent. The defense department has said this will not affect military readiness in any way.”
He made an impassioned plea for changes to our “archaic” food system: “Our food aid takes too long to arrive.” He cited a former official who testified, “I watched people die, waiting for food aid to arrive.”
But his pleas fell on largely deaf ears. The House voted down the amendment, 220 to 203.
This shows how far food aid reform has to go. The amendment did not reflect the far-reaching, meaningful reforms to food aid proposed by Obama administration and progressive NGOs like Oxfam.
In fact, it was a significantly watered-down version of the Food Aid Reform Act, also proposed by Royce. That act would ban the outdated practice of “monetization” of food aid, which benefits domestic interests but harms the economies of poor countries. The amendment only eliminated a requirement that a portion of non-emergency food aid be monetized, leaving the door open for the government to monetize food aid if it wanted to.
World Vision is a large nonprofit that delivers US food aid in places like Haiti. And it opposed the Food Reform Act, even though the group’s Director of Advocacy, Robert Zachritz, acknowledged to me that monetization is “an imperfect mechanism.” After finding itself on the opposite side of the food aid reform debate as Oxfam, World Vision had jumped on board to support the weaker amendment that Royce put forward yesterday.
For politicians like Rep. Adam Smith, who represents a district that stretches from Seattle to Tacoma, it was a tough call. “This is a major form of support for US maritime and agriculture…I’m thinking of the shippers,” he told me the day before the vote. “Yes, it’s more inefficient and inexpensive, but that money is going to jobs.” The maritime shipping industry has donated $117,825 to Smith’s campaigns over the last eight years, according to campaign finance forms.
Still, he told me he was “leaning towards supporting it.” And he did, voting yes. But out of the 11 representatives from Washington state, only two others joined him.
Oxfam, for its part, issued a glass-half-full statement: “There were 203 votes today for reform, and there could be just as many cosponsors of Rep. Royce’s bill…The good news is that the push for reform has never had more political support, and the pressure for change will only grow.” In 2008, an attempt by one representative to force a vote on food aid reform was quashed in committee. In that sense, we’ve come a long way.
But the amendment’s failure is a terrible sign – a moral outrage, really – that entrenched interests can still block a tiny, productive shift in how we feed the world’s hungry. The upside is that the vote was close. And Congress has an opportunity to support an even stronger package of reforms in the form of the Food Aid Reform Act.
The world is watching.