As members of the U.S. House and Senate meet this week to hammer out a farm bill, they are likely to consider changes to the way the United States delivers food aid to hungry and impoverished nations. The debate will reprise an intense legislative battle that flared in June when food aid reforms were proposed in the House.
That struggle had a startling and little-noticed result: a plan to reshape the way in which the U.S. delivers half of the world’s food aid was dealt a decisive blow by a small but determined group of maritime unions.
Unlike other developed nations, which purchase most food aid in the regions that receive it, the U.S. buys food from American farms, ships it on American vessels, and gives away much of the goods free of cost for humanitarian groups to distribute. Although the Government Accountability Office has concluded that this system is “inherently inefficient” and can be harmful to farmers in recipient nations, for decades the setup has been politically untouchable. A powerful coalition including agriculture companies, the military, the shipping industry and humanitarian aid groups ensured that any changes were dead on arrival in Congress.
But when an amendment to the farm bill seeking to shift up to half of U.S. food aid to local and regional purchases emerged in Congress in June, the tide appeared to be turning.
The Obama Administration estimated it could reach up to four million more people for the same price by purchasing half of its food aid locally. Big agriculture was mostly indifferent, with Cargill and the National Farmers Union endorsing the broad strokes of reform. The Pentagon gave its blessing, saying maritime readiness would not be harmed. Humanitarian groups had turned en masse against the current system, saying flooding poor countries with cheap foods was harmful to local farmers.
“It felt different,” said Gawain Kripke, policy director for the aid group Oxfam America, which advocated in favor of the amendment. “We never really had a piece of legislation to rally around.”
There was one remaining sector that stood squarely in the path of the reform: the shipping industry and maritime unions. With fewer allies but undiminished resolve, maritime groups sent letters, organized phone calls and lobbied vigorously with their allies in Congress.
“We did a lot of aggressive advocacy,” said Ed Wytkind, the president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group that represents 32 transport worker unions. “We’ve spoken very, very forcefully to some of our friends on Capitol Hill who don’t seem to understand the issue as well as we wish they did.”
As the vote approached, the shipping unions told Congress that the reform would destroy American jobs and gut the nation’s military sealift capacity. Their message was repeated among House members as they prepared on June 19 to cast their votes.
“When I was on the floor the chatter among members was ‘You know, unions oppose this,’” said a Democratic congressional staffer, who asked to remain anonymous.
When the votes were counted, the amendment had been defeated by a slim margin of 220 to 203. But unlike Congress’s frequent party-line showdowns, these results reflected an unlikely set of opposing coalitions. Both Republicans and Democrats split nearly evenly on the reform. The top-ranking members of each party to cast votes, Eric Cantor and Nancy Pelosi, supported the proposal and went down in defeat. The 94 Democrats that opposed the measure included leading liberals such as George Miller and James Clyburn.
While more Republicans voted against the measure than Democrats, Kripke of Oxfam America said it was the Democratic votes that provided the crucial margin.
“Where we lost the thing is that we really underperformed among labor Democrats, among progressive Democrats,” Kripke said. “I think that when the unions and the AFL affiliates came in was really influential.”
The maritime unions’ success in persuading nearly half of Democrats to oppose a measure expanding the reach of food aid was not only a product of phone calls and effective lobbying. (A send-up by Jon Stewart on the plight of “the most vulnerable among us” focused on the role of shipping companies.)
According to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, two leading maritime unions, the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association and the AFL Transportation Trades Department, and a maritime group backed by both unions and shipping companies, USAMaritime, contributed a total of more than three quarters of a million dollars to members of the current House of Representatives in the 2012 election cycle. Members who received contributions from these groups voted 83 to 29 in opposition to the measure, along with five who did not vote.
Members who received more than $10,000 from these groups opposed the amendment at a rate of seven to one: the vote among these top beneficiaries of shipping unions’ contributions was 28 to 4, with three not voting.