WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is fighting congressional efforts to slash the amount of emergency food aid the United States provides around the world, saying the cuts could hurt up to 8 million people in dire need.
Members of Congress argue that the reductions in aid, included in both the House-passed and Senate-passed versions of a new five-year farm bill, are needed to ensure there are enough dollars for longer-term projects that they say are equally, if not more, important because they can prevent drought, famine and other catastrophes in developing countries.
But the administration says they would hamstring the U.S. humanitarian response to global crises and the U.S. ability to reduce suffering among the world's most impoverished people.
The debate cuts to the heart of philosophical differences over foreign aid and, for some, touches on the age-old question of whether it is better to give a man a fish to feed himself immediately or teach a man to fish so he can eat for years to come.
At issue are provisions in both versions of the farm bill that would set strict limits on how much the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development can spend on "emergency" and "non-emergency" food assistance overseas.
As it has in previous years, Congress has allocated $1.2 billion for the "Food for Peace" program through spending legislation that provides both types of aid. Of that, the administration wants $850 million for emergency aid and $350 million for non-emergency aid but also wants to keep its ability to transfer cash between the accounts.
The administration frequently has used that waiver authority to move money from the non-emergency category to the emergency category to respond to urgent crises like the Indian Ocean tsunami, and it wants to keep such authority.
However, the farm legislation headed to conference negotiations between the two chambers would eliminate that authority and require the administration to spend between $100 million and $250 million less on emergency assistance and more on non-emergency aid, such as crop management and training programs.
The House bill would require the administration to spend $450 million of the $1.2 billion on non-emergency food assistance. The Senate measure goes further, requiring that half of the total be spent on non-emergency aid.
The requirements would force the administration to look elsewhere for extra dollars if it wanted to spend more than is allocated for emergency spending.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and other supporters of the farm bill provisions say the administration waivers are depleting non-emergency development dollars.
Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who added the House provision, said he did so on behalf of several international aid organizations that repeatedly have seen money for their long-term development programs taken away for emergency aid.
If the administration wants more money for the emergency funds, they argue, then it can request more money overall for international food aid.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a Jan. 11 letter to Harkin that the provisions could undermine the U.S. ability to save lives in emergency situations.
For example, she said the reduction in emergency funding in the Senate bill is equivalent to the entire food operation in Sudan's troubled western Darfur region, one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
She urged Harkin to eliminate the spending caps or give the president "reasonable flexibility" to waive them to respond to emergency food crises. "Addressing humanitarian emergencies is a priority of the highest order for the administration."
USAID officials say if the proposed caps had been in place last year, the United States would only have been able to supply emergency food aid to Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia — the three most famine-prone countries in the world — and forced to abandon people needing food in almost every other crisis worldwide without supplemental funding from Congress.
That would have affected as many as 8 million people in Afghanistan, southern Africa, Congo, the countries of the Sahel, Nepal, Zimbabwe and Uganda, they say.
While sympathetic to the need to respond to crises, Harkin and other proponents of the caps are unconvinced by the administration argument and maintain that money for long-term programs must be increased and not cut.
"There is no question that the U.S. must respond in times of international food and humanitarian emergencies," Harkin said. "Unfortunately, those emergency funds have been drawn away from development aid, which would help people avoid future emergencies."
"With more adequate funding for food assistance and careful advance planning, we can better address emergency needs and lay the foundation for development that reduces long-term hunger and poverty," he said.
The conflict over international food aid is only one issue that farm-state members of Congress will have to resolve in farm bill negotiations. The administration has threatened to veto both versions of the bill, saying they would increase taxes and not do enough to limit farm subsidies to wealthy farmers.