WASHINGTON — House Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday ramped up their opposition to President Obama’s proposed overhaul of the U.S. food aid program, saying the push highlighted a lack of national maritime strategy.
Under Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal, the amount of food aid shipped annually to needy countries would be cut by 45 percent, or about $630 million. Opponents argue the move would hurt U.S. farmers, mariners and the military’s sealift capacity, while proponents say more hungry people would be fed if the U.S. bought aid directly from the needy regions.
“There isn’t an overall (maritime) strategy and implementation of a strategy. The pieces of puzzle are disjointed, and some pieces are being taken off the board,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.
The proposed cuts to the Food for Peace program come as the Merchant Marine grapples with reduced cargo handling from the drawdown of Iraq and Afghan wars. U.S.-flag tankers still smart from waivers granted to foreign carriers to ship emergency fuel during the summer of 2011.
The industry also argues that the administration needs to do more to make sure guaranteed cargo for U.S.-flag ships actually winds up on such vessels, instead of being illegally shipped by foreign-flag ships. The U.S. maritime industry, which employs more than 260,000 and contributes $29 billion in annual wages, has seen its international fleet shrink from 850 U.S.-flag vessels to 100 vessels in the last 35 years.
House members appeared unconvinced by the Department of Defense’s claim that the presidential plan to reduce how much U.S food aid has to be shipped by the Merchant Marine wouldn’t hurt the military’s sealift capacity. “We expect in the near term, the industry will adjust to the market,” Gen. William Fraser, commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, told the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. But Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., questioned what the long-term impact would be of the cuts to food aid program.
Hunter, the committee chair, and Garamendi expressed skepticism that Obama’s proposal to promote the industry through a $25 million assistance program was anything more than an attempt to placate maritime stakeholders. The program could be used to assist military useful vessels not in the Maritime Security Program, help mariners maintain their credentials and promote apprentice training, Department of Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari said.
Garamendi, the committee ranking member, said the money would be better used by providing U.S.-flag vessels with more food cargo to ship. He criticized the administration for not having a clear idea on how it wanted to use the $25 million while it tried to reduce preferential cargo for the Merchant Marine.
“I still can’t figure out why the administration is pursuing a policy that will devastate the U.S. shipping industry and put American jobs at risk,” Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., said. “We love this program … We are doing what America is known for, and it feels good to be using American vessels and crew to do something peaceful.”
Hunter said the Obama administration was taking a shortsighted approach to national security through its proposed food aid cuts, putting the country on track to have to spend 20 times more to recapitalize the fleet and attract mariners down the road.
“This committee is not going to make the mistake of being shortsighted,” he said.