Will House Republicans Save Food Aid Reform?

Rep. Ed Royce (R - CA): the potential hero of food aid reform
Rep. Ed Royce (R – CA): the potential hero of food aid reform

These next 48 hours are critical for advancing reform of US international food aid, which I have blogged about previously.  Short version: because current rules essentially demand that we provide aid in food grown in the US via government subsidy, our current aid regime wastes money, delays delivery of aid by weeks, lines the pockets of agribusiness and big shipping, often undermines farmers in the Global South, and leaves 2-4 million people starving who could otherwise be helped.

The basic answer is to allow food to be procured locally; the Obama Administration’s budget proposal did just that, and was given the back of the hand by special interests in the Senate.  The Senate bill, which passed the Upper House, did add some extra money for local procurement, but fell far short of what was really needed.  The pathetic justifications offered by the agribusiness and shipping lobbies show just how weak their policy position is.

And now — maybe the House to the rescue.  The House? The current House?  You gotta be kidding, right?

Wrong.  The hero here is House International Relations Committee chair Ed Royce, a very conservative Republican from Orange County, who studied the way food aid rules work, and got outraged.  That’s hardly odd for a conservative, because farm policy represents about the clearest case of government waste we have.  It didn’t hurt, of course, that allowing for local procurement would also take much food aid from the Agriculture Committee and give it to the IR committee, but that really wasn’t what was happening here: this is an outrage and everyone who looks at it realizes it.

Originally, Royce teamed up with IR Global Affairs Subcommittee ranking member Karen Bass, a liberal African-American Democrat from Los Angeles, to introduce the Food Aid Reform Act, which would allow for local procurement as a general matter.  Before the House can vote on that, however, it needs to consider the Farm Bill, so Royce and IR Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D – NY) have proposed an amendment to the House bill that essentially replicates the Food Aid Reform Act.  The House will consider that amendment as early as Wednesday.

Think about that for a second: “the House will consider that amendment as early as Wednesday.”  That says a lot.  Amendments don’t get considered on the floor of the House unless the Rules Committee allows them to be considered, and the Rules Committee doesn’t allow them to be considered unless it’s okay with the leadership.  That means that at least, there is substantial support in the Republican Conference for this measure.  GOP to the rescue!

Of course, they should support it.  Reforming food aid to allow for local procurement (as well as other crucial reforms) is such a no-brainer that it is perhaps the last genuinely bipartisan policy initiative out there.  Don’t believe me?  Even the Heritage Foundation favors this.  Does that make you as a liberal Democrat get nauseous?  Well, me too, sort of, but the same reforms are backed by the Center for American Progress.

So now — which is to say, right now, as soon as the business day starts in Washington DC — call your Congresscritter and ask them to support the Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) to the Farm Bill.  After the jump, I’m including the talking points prepared by the American Jewish World Service, which in conjunction with lots of other charities like Bread for the World, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, and many others, has spearheaded this campaign.  You should drop a dime for them, too, by the way.

But really: call. write.  E-mail.  This means life or death for people. Do it.

AJWS logo

I’m writing, as a constituent and as a supporter of American Jewish World Service <http://www.ajws.org/>, to urge you to vote YES on the Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) when it comes up during the Farm Bill debate this week.

The bi-partisan Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) to the Farm Bill would make significant and urgently needed reforms to our international food aid system by creating more flexibility and ending the practice of monetization, while also saving taxpayer dollars by eliminating wasteful spending.

While U.S. food aid saves millions of lives, we know all too well that the system is flawed. Current law requires that our government ship the majority of our food aid from the U.S., which means that it can take many months to reach people who need it. And since we buy almost none of the food from farmers in the countries we’re helping, our aid often undercuts local prices and even puts local farms out of business.

As you may recall, President Obama made recommendations in his 2014 budget proposal to address some of these challenges. The Royce-Engel Amendment essentially codifies the president’s proposal into law by allowing 45% of U.S. food aid to be in the form of local purchase, cash or vouchers. This flexibility would enable us to reach at least 4 million more people, with the same dollar amount, and would eliminate delivery delays of 3-4 months that are often the difference between life and death.

The amendment also ends the requirement that some portion of food aid be ‘monetized’ – a system through which in-kind food aid is donated to international development organizations, which in turn sell the food in local markets overseas to raise money for their development projects. Ending monetization creates the flexibility to use cash instead of commodities for important development projects financed through the food aid program.

A large coalition of groups support this amendment including AJWS, Oxfam, Bread for the World, Save the Children, CARE, Catholic Relief Services and many others. Think tanks across the ideological spectrum have also endorsed food aid reform, from the Heritage Foundation to the Center for American Progress.

I believe ending global hunger is a moral imperative and a fiscal priority. I urge you to vote YES on this amendment and to help make history on this issue.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

19 thoughts on “Will House Republicans Save Food Aid Reform?”

  1. Given the urgency, I took the rare liberty of removing the line breaks from the draft letter.

    Suggested addition to paragraph 4: “It would also end a practice that undercuts local producers and reduces the prospects of long-term market-based self-sufficiency in basic foodstuffs.”

  2. I am totally sympathetic with this effort, but I am somewhat puzzled where local products are supposed to come from in drought stricken areas.

    1. In the 1840s, Ireland continued to export grain even as thousands of subsistence potato farmers died of hunger. The problem in famines is not usually an absolute shortage of food, but the fact that a lot of people – especially farmers whose crops have failed – have no money to buy it. That’s why I understand Amartya Sen, who made his reputation studying the problem, recommends public works as the best solution. Give people some money, by work or handout, and a trader will show up with food to sell them. That is, if foreigners haven’t made him destitute too by dumping their “food aid” on the local market.

    2. @ cbird — James is right. Quite often, a “famine” is about distribution of food, not about its existence. Moreover, famines often do not affect the entire region. So if, for example, there is a famine in Ethiopia, it’s easy to purchase grain from Kenya. And, as James alludes, quite often the problem is also corrupt and brutal governments (e.g. Ethiopia under Mengistu, the British in Bengal 1943, and the British agains in Ireland in the 1840’s.). There’s food: it’s getting it to people that’s crucial.

      1. Was corruption any part of the problem in either of the two British imperial cases? In the Irish one, Lord John Russell’s government was in ideological thrall to a hard liberal economism quite close in spirit to modern libertarianism. Night-watchman states don’t leave much scope for corruption. The disaster in Bengal had a lot to do with distraction by the war. The Raj had dealt somewhat better – which isn’t saying much – with earlier famines, such as that of 1899-1900 under Curzon. Basically the British Empire didn’t think that crop-failure famine was something it had a responsibility to prevent rather than palliate.

        Kipling’s story William the Conqueror is a disturbing love-story set against the background of an Indian famine and the relief efforts in which the hero and heroine are involved.

        1. No, that’s right — I was writing imprecisely. There wasn’t corruption with the Irish famine, or rather, it was the corruption of ideology. Charles Trevelyan was many things, but he was not corrupt — in fact, if anything, he was basically the opposite of corrupt. Point taken.

        2. James,

          Good point on libertarianism. One of Sen’s other arguments is that negative liberties are important but not sufficient to sustain welfare.

          His argument in Democracy and Famines was that in Democracies leaders have electoral incentives sufficient to force them to get resources to those in need, even otherwise lousy leaders in relatively corrupt states. The empirical evidence seems to back this claim quite well. The problem with the British Imperial cases is that those suffering (the Irish and Indians for example) didn’t have a vote.



  3. Done.

    rules essentially demand that we provide aid in food grown in the US via government subsidy, our current aid regime wastes money, delays delivery of aid by weeks, lines the pockets of agribusiness and big shipping

    (snark) The only thing I don’t get is that you seem to think the above are bugs in policy, rather than features? (/snark)

  4. Done. I went to the American Jewish World Service web site and clicked ‘take action’.

  5. This is wonderful. But aren’t these the same people trying to cut food stamps here? I want that legislation tanked. Sorry but that’s sort of a “red line” for me. Too bad they are trying to combine the bills.

        1. Oh and also, thank you for highlighting a Republican who’s actually trying to do something good with his power. Amen.

          Now I’m shutting up!

    1. Their Food Stamp policy is indeed sadistic and brutal, but the point is, as you mention later, to give them credit on the occasions when they do the right thing. Who knows? Maybe it will encourage them? Besides, as Keynes said when accused of being “inconsistent” regarding David Lloyd George, “The difference between me and some other people is that I oppose Lloyd George when he is wrong and support him when he is right.”

  6. I had the privilege of futilely voting against Ed Royce many times, until the 2012 redistricting provided the privilege of futilely voting against a different clueless Republican.

    The concept of Ed Royce having a good idea is extremely hard for me to process.

    But this is unquestionably a good idea.

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