Bottom line: The proposed reforms would streamline the program and better provide food to those who need it. Instead of subsidies for U.S. farmers, subsidies for U.S. shippers, and subsidies for nonprofit organizations, which consume 30-40 percent of the food aid budget, the food and some economic stimulus might actually get to the intended recipients.
I bet you can see where this is going. The food aid Iron Triangle has come out of the box in opposition, making it clear that a good part of this apparently altruistic program is really about self-interest. Agribusiness, American shippers, some of the nonprofit world -- not to speak of the agriculture appropriators and the Agriculture Department -- don't appear warm to the idea.
I saw this Iron Triangle up close when I was at the Office of Management and Budget in the 1990s. Every year, the folks in the first corner -- the private sector -- would lobby me about the food aid program. Shippers, farm lobbyists, and the nonprofits would link arms around my conference table justifying the budget request. For agribusiness, food aid is another piece -- albeit a small one (food aid is less than 1 percent of total U.S. agricultural exports) -- of the subsidies the taxpayer provides for their crops. For the nonprofits, monetizing bags of food is an important, taxpayer-supported subsidy for their administrative costs. And the shippers, well, that's pretty clear -- the American maritime industry needs every subsidy it can get, given its inability to compete on the global market for shipping. (GAO says the number of available American ships has fallen 50 percent over the past 10 years.)
In the second corner of the triangle is the federal government. In this case, even though USAID has been administering this program for donkey's years, the budget shift would take turf away from the Department of Agriculture, which owns the budget for the program. Now, presumably, President Obama and OMB worked that out when they put the budget proposal together, but I would not be shocked to learn that some over at Agriculture are not happy and are letting it be known, end-running the president's budget proposal.
Over in the third corner we have Congress. One of USAID's authorizing committees -- the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- has already come out in favor of reform; the chair and the ranking member both say they like the proposal. But it seems the Agriculture Committee folks are unhappy about losing jurisdiction (and the accompanying budget allocation) for food aid. After all, who provides their campaign contributions? Why, it would be like breaking up a family, or, maybe, the already nearly invisible family farm. And the appropriators, who really handle the money, can get more done that way.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit world is divided. My conversations tell me some, like World Vision, have lined up behind the shippers and agribusiness. Others, like the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, like the proposal. No unity there.
Change is really hard in Washington, even when it makes good common sense. More food could be shipped, growers in developing countries could get a stimulus, and local famers could keep a piece of the action. The proposal even throws a bone to shippers, proposing that some of the funding be shifted to the Maritime Administration.
But Iron Triangles are hardy things; that's why and how they are "iron." They don't always respond to common sense. And Congress is particularly rigid, since the committees and members are deeply embedded with the interests that have a stake in the programs.
If "normal" congressional politics prevail, I can see who will win this fight. USAID's authorizers don't have the domestic clout the Ag committees have. Their appropriators don't get campaign contributions from the countries overseas that receive the food -- that would be illegal. So stay tuned for an outcome that doesn't change the current program very much at all.