By Rep Elijah Cummings
For generations, the United States Food for Peace program has helped deliver food assistance to millions of hungry and malnourished people across the world. Through the program, food grown on American farms is transported on U.S. ships to those in need. This mutually beneficial partnership allows food aid to reach all corners of the globe while supporting domestic farm production and ensuring that the United States is able to maintain vital sealift capabilities during peacetime.
Despite this legacy of success, the Obama administration recently proposed restructuring the food aid program as primarily a cash voucher system -- effectively handing out cash overseas, not food. Supporters of this drastic change, including the Washington Post, are missing important facts about U.S. food aid programs and the U.S. merchant marine.
Our existing food aid programs are reliable and transparent, and by shipping aid on U.S. vessels they utilize the most proven method for cost-effective delivery of food aid to hungry populations abroad. The administration's proposal is unproven on a large scale and could not be implemented with the same levels of accountability and transparency that characterize our existing food aid programs.
Additionally, the supporters of these changes mischaracterize the importance of the U.S. merchant marine and the essential policy nexus between it and food aid programs. Since 1936, U.S. law has held "that the United States shall have a merchant marine sufficient to carry . . . a substantial portion of the water-borne export and import foreign commerce of the United States and . . . capable of serving as a naval and military auxiliary in time of war or national emergency."
In 1975, there were more than 850 ocean-going vessels sailing under the U.S. flag. At the end of 2012, there were just 109 U.S.-flagged ocean-going vessels. Not surprisingly, the percentage of U.S. commercial cargoes carried on American vessels has also fallen. Thus, a study issued in 1981 by the Comptroller General found that the total percentage of U.S. commercial cargo carried in U.S.-flagged vessels had declined from 10 percent in 1959 to just 4 percent 20 years later. A study issued by IHS Global Insight in 2009 found that barely 2 percent of U.S. foreign trade is now moving in U.S.-flagged vessels.
To our peril, U.S.-flagged vessels no longer carry a "substantial portion" of our commercial cargoes, but we must maintain adequate sealift capacity, both to support our military and to ensure that our nation retains at least a core of skilled merchant mariners and commercial vessels of all types. If not, our national objectives will be dependent on foreign-flagged vessels operated by foreign mariners.
Food aid, carried on U.S.-flag commercial vessels pursuant to cargo preference laws, provides essential cargo for our domestic fleet. The Department of Defense has indicated that any savings that might result from reductions in such cargoes will have to be offset with substantial new expenditures to maintain sealift readiness.
We note that the merchant mariners and vessels sustained by food aid cargoes have provided 95 percent of the sealift capacity that has supported our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq at a cost dramatically lower than if the Pentagon had to maintain this capacity using wholly government-owned assets and federal employees.
The plain fact ignored by those who now advocate changing the scope of our highly successful food aid program is that the taxpayers have saved money by utilizing the U.S. commercial fleet to provide military sealift and food aid assistance under our cargo preference laws. Before considering such dramatic alterations to existing food aid programs, we must recognize that there are no viable, lower cost alternatives to replace this vital sealift capacity. We also should acknowledge that any such changes would only speed the decline of the U.S.-flag commercial fleet and destroy the livelihoods of the thousands of U.S. seafarers who sail those vessels.