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The Stalling Debate Over Food Aid Reform

May 5, 2013
US Capitol, Washington DC

US Capitol, Washington DC

President Obama’s proposal to reform the US food aid system was widely celebrated by critics of the current system. But his proposals appear to have run into strong opposition in Congress.

According to the New York Times, members of both the House and Senate agriculture subcommittees have already voiced opposition to proposal to shift responsibility for food aid programming from the Department of Agriculture to the US Agency for International Development and the Department of State. And in a rare sign of bipartisan cooperation in Washington DC, subcommittee Republicans and Democrats are hesitant.

Robert Aderholt (R-AL), House agriculture committee chair, expressed concern that shifting the food aid budget from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of State would “hurt American farmers.” Sam Farr (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, raised similar concerns, noting that, “I’m not endorsing the transfer — the realignment — until there are assurances that the program will remain intact and not be raided by other foreign ops interest,” Farr also suggested that anyone who expected quick reforms to the US food aid system would be sorely disappointed, saying, “I don’t think [the reforms] will happen this year. That’s the politics.” Similar bipartisan opposition has been expressed in the Senate’s agriculture subcommittee.

The political opposition to reforms are disappointing but should not be surprising. Most experts looking at US food aid see the benefits of the proposed reforms, which would allow US food aid to reach more people at a lower cost. But entrenched agricultural and shipping interests, particularly as represented by agriculture-intensive states in the US Congress, will likely make any real changes difficult. I’d be happy if Obama’s proposed reforms work their way through. The reforms are a step in the right direction—admittedly a very small step, but a good first step nonetheless. But I’d be very surprised if they work their way through the Congress.

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