It turns out it will require a delicate legislative touch to find a balance between international food aid reform and the needs of the U.S. maritime industry.
At first glance, such reforms would seem an easy task for the farm bill conferees. Who doesn’t want 4 million more hungry stomachs to be filled annually? Who doesn’t want food to reach the world’s starving and hungry much quicker?
But the initial impulse to help and make such reforms, argue those warning against quick action, masks a massive tangle of such humanitarian assistance and U.S. jobs and military preparedness. And they say that tangle is a product of outsourcing, the unfortunate ignorance of many lawmakers, and a misreading of just how vulnerable the nation is.
The reform-minded – which include the Obama administration and many aid organizations – want the new farm bill to allow cash and vouchers to be distributed directly to the world’s neediest, allowing them to make purchases from local markets.
The idea is to move funds to different accounts – including the International Disaster Assistance Account and the Development Assistance Account -- under the control of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Doing so would allow USAID additional flexibility to make choices depending on the situation.
If it was just a matter of feeding the hungry, says Denise Krepp, there would be no need for a big debate. But, says the former Obama political appointee and Chief Counsel of the U.S. Maritime Administration, that isn’t the case.
Krepp, currently a private consultant and professor at Penn State and George Washington University, spoke with Farm Press about the reforms’ implications for the U.S. maritime sector. Among her comments:
On the farm bill conferees being very tight-lipped…
“I’ve helped negotiate these types of bills before. The silence and lack of public comment means the (food aid reforms) are still being negotiated.
“What happens in these negotiations is the staffers negotiate the low-hanging fruit – ‘I’ll give you this if you give me that.’ They work their way up to the top issues and that’s when the dealing really starts. By ‘dealing’ I mean the issues will go to Senate and House leadership.
"If food aid reform goes through, something will be given up in return.
“That give-and-get just hasn’t been finalized yet. That’s what’s happening, right now.”
Does Krepp believe there will be a farm bill before year’s end?
“I do. That’s because there are a bunch of primaries coming up in the spring. Many members of Congress will have to go home and face constituents.
“Without a farm bill, there will be a wave of folks wanting to kick them. Regardless if you’re a Democrat or Republican, people will be saying, ‘I’m losing money.’ Farmers are losing money, people on SNAP are losing benefits and they’ll go after the lawmakers.
“Without a farm bill, these will be talking points in the endless political commercials we’ll all have to endure next year.”
On the national security implications of international food aid reform…
“It’s incredibly serious.
“Fifty years ago, when our grandparents were going to war in Korea and Vietnam, the majority of the vessels used to help transport military goods – weapons, tanks – were on U.S. vessels.
“Right now, we don’t have the capability to transport everything on U.S. vessels. Some of our Department of Defense cargo is going on foreign-flagged vessels.
“That’s amazing to me.
“About 10 years ago, Canada was in a bind and had put a tenth of their tank division on a vessel and forgot to pay the transporter. So, they had to land Canadian marines on the vessel to get their tanks back.
“We’re heading in that direction. We’re about to outsource our ability to move our tanks.
“If we go to war with a neighbor, we don’t need the ability to ship. We’ll just cross the border. But we’re not going to war with Mexico or Canada. If we go to war, it will be in Asia – and we need our own vessels.
“Those vessels are currently being used for food aid. That’s one way to ensure they still exist.
“So, farm aid is tied to national security. I wish we had a more robust maritime industry but we don’t. We don’t subsidize the American industry like the Koreans and Chinese. Some people say the Chinese aren’t subsidizing, that’s not true – it’s called the state government.
“We don’t do that. And when we try to do that, people say, ‘these mariners are awful and want too much.’ But they are ensuring that when we go to war – and we will again – the ships are available and make sure we can transport our stuff.”
What’s your take on how many lawmakers actually know about this?
“Sadly, many of supporters of the maritime industry have died or left government.
“(Hawaii Sen.) Daniel Inouye was an incredible supporter and was in a leadership position on the Appropriations Committee. He was also a Medal of Honor recipient – he knew full well what could happen. (Kansas Sen.) Bob Dole knew what could happen.
“Others that were big supporters that have left include Louisiana Sen. John Breaux and Mississippi Rep. Gene Taylor.
“The maritime industry has three current champions in the House of Representatives – (California) Rep. Duncan Hunter, (California) Rep. John Garamendi, and (Maryland) Rep. Elijah Cummings. They are incredibly smart men and they understand what is happening. We need more members like them who fully understand how the maritime industry directly impacts our national security.
“Many of the current lawmakers have never served in the military and don’t understand how the maritime industry impacts our nation. I’ve been very surprised to see many of the port-state members vote for the food aid changes. Do they not understand that the maritime stuff comes out of their ports? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Splitting the baby
Is there a way to split the baby on this?
“Changes can be made. Everyone will take a haircut on this. It has to happen. We have to pay our bills.
“But the haircut they want out of the maritime industry is very significant. And it’s disturbing because they don’t realize what they’re doing. You can go in and ask them, ‘How will this impact the industry?’ They’ll look at you with a blank stare and admit they don’t know. Well, this is important in so many ways – maybe they should be able to explain this before taking such action.”
On feeding starving people while also maintaining U.S. jobs…
“Feeding people shouldn’t be the issue. No one should go hungry and there are a lot of starving people around the world. Just look at the Philippines, right now.
“I don’t want to see anyone starve but I don’t want to see U.S. people out of work. We can take care of both.
“One thing that surprises me is the lawmakers that say they’re all for more jobs. Yet, with these proposals, you’d be cutting U.S. jobs.”
Do you agree with the 33,000 jobs figure that will be impacted by the reforms?
“I do. And it isn’t just the 33,000 but a multiplier effect. When you lose mariners, you lose them forever. It takes so much time to become qualified.
“It’s important that people understand that U.S. grain doesn’t magically appear in the Philippines or Africa. There’s a process. Too few know what that process looks like.”
On strengthening a farmer/maritime coalition…
“Farmers need to know about this. Not only will mariners be affected negatively, so will farmers.
“The lawmakers need to put faces to these issues. That’s one thing that I learned on the Hill – you need to see a face to fully appreciate what a policy decision can mean. It’s easy to make a decision without a face. When you know someone affected, when that person in a member of your church or scouting troop, it makes it a heck of a lot more difficult cut funds, or whatever.
“People must get energized about this.”
More on the use of non-U.S.-flagged vessels and the true cost of sequestration…
“Money is allocated to the U.S. Transportation Command (TransCom). The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and, to some extent, the Coast Guard go to the command and say, ‘Okay, we need to move X number of tanks or guns.’ Petroleum must also be moved to keep the naval vessels running.
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“Well, if you’ve just been cut because of sequestration and don’t want to pay the costs associated with U.S. mariners and vessels, you’ll give yourself a waiver and put all that stuff on foreign-flagged vessels.
“To me, that’s a huge security risk. But from TransCom’s perspective, the budget folks, that’s the cheapest way to move things.”
More on oversight and the farm bill conference make-up…
“Farm bill conferees are usually leaders on committees that provide general oversight. The general oversight of maritime issues isn’t represented in the farm bill conference. Someone made a strategic decision to put only agriculture folks on the committee.
“Well, that means there aren’t conferees that fully understand what’s going on in the maritime industry. I know how this works. So, the agriculture folks will just be told to sign off on whatever is put before them provided, again, that they get something in return.”