Congress shifts food aid funds into shipping costs

The OlympianMay 15, 2014 

It’s reasonable for members of Congress to debate the appropriate amount of U.S. tax dollars to spend on food aid shipped to help hungry people around the world. It’s also reasonable for taxpayers to expect Congress would ship that aid as inexpensively as possible.

But this Congress doesn’t always act reasonably.

A month ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2014, which increased transportation costs of U.S.-sourced food aid by $75 million annually. A coalition of humanitarian groups estimates that diverting this money from food to shipping costs will deprive about 2 million vulnerable people of access to life-saving food.

House representatives slipped in Section 318 of the act to negate a 2012 bipartisan agreement that reduced the preference for shipping cargo on privately owned U.S.-flagged vessels from 75 percent to 50 percent. Shipping on internationally-flagged vessels is less expensive.

As passed by the U.S. House, the bill would return the percentage to pre-2012 levels and drastically increase shipping costs.

The move is puzzling because the three largest cargo shippers that will benefit most from the change are U.S. divisions of foreign-owned companies. It’s not as if the change would create any significant new jobs for Americans.

This doesn’t qualify as “buying American.”

According to Bread for the World, a nonprofit agency affected by the federal legislation, the increase would negate the “efficiency gains made to international food aid programs in the recently passed bipartisan Farm Bill and the FY2014 omnibus appropriations bill.”

Bread for the World is lobbying Sen. Maria Cantwell, among others, to eliminate Section 318 from the bill in the U.S. Senate. Oxfam, CARE, the Borgen Project of Seattle, Mercy Corps, Lutheran World Relief, Catholic Relief Services and other NGOs have joined the fight.

Bread for the World’s President Stephen H. Padre said, “It’s horrendous that lawmakers would even consider taking food from hungry people in order to support just a few shipping companies.”

The joint coalition of NGOs estimates that 842 million people worldwide go hungry every day. They consider U.S. food aid a responsible use of taxpayer money and a moral imperative.

As a practical matter, if the U.S. is going to provide food aid, Congress should ensure that taxpayers get as much aid as possible into the hands of those who need it. With H.B. 4005, Congress is going the opposite direction.

Cantwell and her senatorial colleagues must correct the lower chamber’s misdirection.

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