House Criticizes Obama's Food Aid Overhaul

House Criticizes Obama's Food Aid Overhaul

WASHINGTON — House Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday criticized President Obama’s proposal to dramatically reduce how much U.S. agriculture cargo can be shipped by the Merchant Marine, suggesting the fight over how food aid is given to developing countries is just beginning.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said the proposal to cut the amount of food aid shipped annually to needy countries by up to 45 percent, or about $630 million, was misguided. Obama’s plan to use the money to buy food near recipients would reduce the country’s emergency sealift capacity, and hurt the U.S. agriculture and maritime industries, said Hunter, chairman of the subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

Supporters of the Food for Peace program overhaul argue that the U.S. spends too much on shipping and that buying food from developing countries helps them build their own agriculture capacity. The proposed shift in how food aid is given would allow 2 million more people to be fed annually, according to the administration's fiscal 2014 budget. 

“I don’t think it works,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. “I am trying to figure out where the regionally food purchasing is available. Presumably, there is a shortage of food. Where are these regions?”

Maritime Administrator David Matsuda said he didn’t know the specific region but pointed to how his agency would get an extra $25 million in fiscal 2014 to help U.S.-flag carriers deal with the reduced cargo hauling. Hunter said the $25 million intended to placate the industry wasn’t acceptable.

Through the president’s budget, the Maritime Administration would receive $364.8 million in fiscal 2014, a $13.2 million, or 3.8 percent increase, from the prior fiscal year. Despite the increase in funding, the agency wouldn’t receive any money for the Assistance of Small Shipyard Grant Program. The program got $10 million in fiscal 2013.

Although he didn’t take issue with the administration's budget for Marad, Hunter said the proposal to give the Federal Maritime Commission $2.1 million more in fiscal 2014 sent the wrong message in a tight fiscal environment. The FMC’s annual budget would rise to $25 million if Congress accepts the budget plan.

Newly appointed FMC Chairman Mario Cordero said reducing the agency’s cost would be difficult because about 75 percent of the agency's expenses go toward payroll and benefits. Another 20 percent of expenses are for travel, which is key for the FMC to operate in a global industry, and for fixed costs, such as rent and security. Cordero highlighted how the agency has kept costs down by reducing travel and training expenses, hiring only for the most critical vacancies, and trimming costs associated with legal publications and shipping data.

Contact Mark Szakonyi at mszakonyi@joc.com and follow him at twitter.com/szakonyi_joc.