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The 114th Congress and Prospects for International Development

Friday, November 14th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and MFAN Co-Chair. This piece originally appeared on the Brookings blog on November 13.

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Conventional wisdom has it that foreign assistance is best supported by a Republican president and a Democratic Congress—Democrats are generally supportive of foreign assistance and a Republican president can convince his party’s legislators to support his foreign assistance programs. Add to that the dysfunction of recent congresses and the continued heightened partisanship, and the prospects for the newly elected 114th Congress taking constructive action on foreign assistance would appear dim.

For three reasons, I believe this pessimistic structural assessment does not reflect current reality, though it’s true that funding levels will remain a struggle and could be a target of a future budget battle.

International Crises Remind Us of the World

Turning to the old adage of “never waste a crisis,” the inward-looking turn reflected in opinion polls at the beginning of the 2014 election cycle was reversed by early fall—likely due to the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Ebola, which, by reminding the body politic that we ignore the world at our own peril, returned the American public to its more historical position of supporting international engagement. Further, as analyzed by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, “isolationism” was the big loser in the campaign. While there candidates advocating for retrenchment from international affairs, few of those articulating a “closed door” were elected and a number of the new members have international experience through the military, business, and other venues (full disclosure: I serve as honorary chairman of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition).

Strong Leadership on Committees to Continue

The congressional committees with jurisdiction over international affairs are likely to be under the leadership of committed internationalists who understand and support foreign assistance. Where the leadership will change in the Senate, the incoming chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, Senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham, are strong supporters of foreign assistance and they and their staffs have demonstrated interest in legislation to modernize foreign assistance policy and programs. Their predecessors, Senators Bob Menendez and Patrick Leahy, respectively, also are strong supporters of foreign assistance and likely to serve as the ranking Democrats on the committees. In the House, Nita Lowey is slated to retain her position as the ranking Democrat on the State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee and the candidates to succeed subcommittee Chair Kay Granger also are supporters of foreign assistance. On the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chairman Henry Royce and ranking Democrat Elliot Engel will retain their positions.

Less Partisanship, but Resources Remain in Jeopardy

Most of the current issues involving foreign assistance fly under partisan radar. Sure, there will be the perennial contest around family planning policies and struggles around funding for a few less favorite accounts like the United Nations and the multilateral banks. Members will disagree on the nature of and how exactly to confront the Islamic State and Ebola, but at the end of the debates they will support U.S. policies and resources to confront these two scourges.

Just as the Obama Administration has supported and continued key Bush Administration initiatives—notably PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)—so, too, has the Republican Congress generally supported Obama initiatives in the foreign assistance realm.

There are ongoing and new efforts to write some of the initiatives into law, specifically in three areas. There has been strong support for legislation to authorize Power Africa; the bill has passed the House and has good support in the Senate. In recent months Obama’s Feed the Future has been the subject of serious administration/Congress/civil society deliberations to draft implementing legislation, and those discussions are expected to result in a bill with strong bipartisan support. The Foreign Assistance Transparency and Accountability Act would write into law the Administration’s policy initiatives on data transparency and evaluation. It has bipartisan support and is the subject of discussions to move the current bill in the lame-duck session or a revised draft in the new Congress. That consideration of moving the legislation to the next Congress conveys legislators’ comfort with the idea that bipartisan cooperation is possible.

There is reason for concern on the matter of resources. Not from immediate action, as both House and Senate appropriations committees have marked international affairs for fiscal year 2015 at $49.9 billion, just below the FY 2014 level of $50.6 billion and $1.6 billion shy of the administration’s request of $51.5 billion for FY 2015. The current continuing resolution is actually at $50.4 billion. And the Congress is likely to support most or part of the administration’s emergency request for Ebola of $6.4 billion.

The greater concern is for FY 2016 and 2017. Sequestration kicks back in next year and there will be efforts to protect defense, possibly at the expense of non-defense accounts. And, while the appropriators will remain advocates of foreign assistance funding, the House and Senate budget committees have traditionally not been so supportive. Incoming chairman of the Senate Budget Committee Jeff Sessions is in keeping with this mold. Back to not wasting a crisis—Ebola, the Islamic State, and the continuing uncertainty through much of the Middle East should be enough to keep members focused on the importance of the ability of the U.S. to be an active participant in world events.

The Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation

Two related international affairs matters to keep an eye on are the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank (EXIM) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). EXIM does not traditionally fall under the development rubric, but the export finance agency is slated under the administration’s plans to provide $5 billion of the $7 billion of U.S. government funding for power projects under its signature initiative Power Africa. Over the past several years EXIM has been a prime target of conservative Republicans. Rejecting the arguments that it creates jobs, levels the playing field for U.S. exporters, and pays its own way, they attack the agency as corporate welfare. Anticipating Republican control of the Senate in the new Congress, they orchestrated a temporary extension of EXIM’s authorities to June 2015, so reauthorization of EXIM will likely be a donnybrook battle for the new session.

Reauthorization of OPIC is less controversial. A temporary extension is in the continuing resolution and will be carried forward in whatever replaces the continuing resolution (it expires December 11), either a new continuing resolution into early next year or an omnibus appropriations bill for the entire fiscal year 2015. A permanent reauthorization has been part of the Power Africa legislation and could be carried there or in other legislation.

Engage the Congress

Bottom line: it’s worth our time to engage with the 114th Congress, as there will be opportunities to improve our foreign assistance policies and programs and funding levels will need our support.

International aid groups applaud bipartisan legislation to reform international food aid programs

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014
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Washington, D.C.- This statement is delivered on behalf of the endorsing organizations: American Jewish World Service, Bread for the World, CARE, Church World Service, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, Oxfam America, Presbyterian Church USA, Save the Children, The Borgen Project, United Methodist Church: General Board of Church and Society.

As leading organizations working to fight hunger, poverty and malnutrition around the world, we welcome the Food for Peace Reform Act of 2014 proposed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-TN) and African Affairs Subcommittee Chairman Chris Coons (D-DE). If enacted, this bipartisan legislation would provide up to 9 million more people with lifesaving aid at no additional cost by using taxpayer dollars more efficiently.

The bill modernizes U.S. food aid programs, removing outdated red tape and ensuring the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) can reach more of the world’s most vulnerable children and families quickly and effectively during times of crisis. The bill places food aid authorities into the Foreign Assistance Act while maintaining the objectives and core structures of the original program. It would allow USAID to run a 21st century food aid program with the flexibility needed to meet increasing demand from humanitarian crises. We urge members of the Senate to swiftly pass this bill and ensure it is signed into law.

“With a growing number of crises around the world and volatile food and fuel prices stressing aid budgets, it is imperative to build on the momentum achieved through reforms included in the Farm Bill and FY14 appropriations and maximize flexibility to ensure tax dollars get a bigger bang for their buck. We look forward to working with members of both parties to ensure long overdue reforms are passed into law.”

The United States is the world’s most generous donor of food aid, and U.S. international food assistance is one of the most important expressions of American leadership and values abroad. Food aid helps feed 55 million people in need around the world every year, supporting both emergency responses and programs that tackle chronic hunger and malnutrition. This Act responds to the numerous studies and reports that conclude that our system for delivering food aid is plagued by inefficiencies that, if improved, would result in reaching more hungry people more quickly and at no additional cost. One Government Accountability Office study found that because of existing outdated rules, it can take four to six months for U.S. food aid to be procured, shipped and distributed in recipient countries. During urgent crises, these delays can be a matter of life and death.

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Charting A Way Forward on U.S. Development Policy

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014
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See below for a post by MFAN Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette.

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The U.S. has an important leadership role to play when it comes to supporting development and reducing poverty around the world. Foreign assistance serves our national interests by enhancing national security, expanding global economic opportunities, and promoting American values. In 2008, MFAN was established because of the growing recognition that U.S. foreign assistance and development policy needed to be strengthened and modernized in order to confront today’s challenges and bring about a more peaceful and prosperous world.

Since MFAN’s founding we have seen the Administration and Congress take actions to improve development policy and practice and make U.S. assistance dollars work smarter. Today, with the launch of our new policy paper, The Way Forward: A Reform Agenda for 2014 and Beyond, we both reflect on past achievements and humbly recognize there is much more work to be done.

MFAN’s new agenda outlines two powerful and mutually reinforcing pillars of reform – accountability through transparency, evaluation and learning; and country ownership of the priorities and resources for, and implementation of, development. These pillars are vital to building capacity in developing countries to enable leaders and citizens to take responsibility for their own development.

We applaud the many actions that have already been taken or put in motion to advance accountability and country ownership. For the Obama Administration, these include the commitment to fully implement the International Aid Transparency Initiative, USAID’s Partnership for Growth and Local Solutions initiatives, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s commitment to transparency reflected by its top ranking on the 2013 Aid Transparency Index. In addition it is particularly encouraging to see that transparency is embedded in the recommendations of the Global Development Council that were released this week. Congress has also taken up the reform cause with the creation of the Congressional Caucus on Effective Foreign Assistance, the introduction and reintroduction of the Foreign Aid Transparency and Accountability Act, and recent efforts to improve the efficiency and responsiveness of international food aid.

These next two years are an important window of opportunity for U.S. aid reform. The midterm elections in 2014 are certain to shake up the membership of Congress. In 2015, the Millennium Development Goals will expire and a new global development agenda will take its place. And 2016 will bring a new administration and further changes in Congress.  We urge the Administration and Congress to work together to institutionalize the important reforms that have already been introduced and continue to push forward on strengthening country ownership and accountability. The profound changes in international aid globally make the focus on these changes even more important to ensuring US aid effectiveness.

We will be tracking progress made on the key reform actions we outline in the paper and sharing our thoughts with the community, the Administration, and Congress. We invite – and look forward to – the dialogue that these recommendations will generate.

The Farm Bill reform that will feed millions

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Adam Olson, Oxfam America’s Regional Advocacy Lead based in Chicago. Olson writes about the reforms to international food aid in the 2014 Farm Bill.  The original post appeared on Food Tank.

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Tucked away in Title III of the 2014 US Farm Bill, occupying just one of its 357 pages, quietly sits a reform that will empower thousands of farmers to feed millions more people a year suffering from hunger. Despite its practicality and comparatively low profile, it represents a long, hard fought victory. It’s an expansion of local purchasing of international food aid – and it’s worth celebrating.

Food aid is the backstop of our global food supply. When all else fails, it stands between life and mass starvation. With more than 850 million people suffering from hunger, efficiency in supporting their right to food matters. By using up to $80 million a year to buy food from local sources instead of distant American ones, the reform will feed millions more people. The concept is simple. For instance, if food aid was needed in Vietnam and rice was available in nearby Thailand, it could be purchased there instead of the current practice of shipping it from the US.

This process, proven by other food aid donors and a US pilot project:

1. Cuts food and delivery costs by 25-50%;

2. Reduces the average time it takes to deliver food by 14 weeks;

3. Reaches more people at a lower cost;

4. And, can have longer-term benefit of investing in farmers abroad, making them better able to support their own communities.

Despite all this, even small steps toward permitting local purchasing have been bitterly opposed by special interests, including agribusinesses and shippers. They cling to an antiquated status quo that requires all food to come from the United States. This made some sense when established in the 1950s, when my grandparents were farming in Minnesota. America had a surplus of cheap commodities and food aid was difficult to procure elsewhere. This hasn’t been true for a long time.

The old regime isn’t even particularly profitable for those who defend it, and they know it. In a hilarious Daily Show segment, a shipping industry representative repeatedly cites “heritage” as reason to maintain obsolete regulations. A Farm Bureau economist told Reuters she was more concerned with a loss of “pride” than farm revenue. Food aid amounts to about one percent of US agricultural exports – not enough to measurably impact commodity prices. My grandparents would have been proud to sell that fraction of their crop elsewhere in order to support fellow farmers abroad.

It’s taken common-sense sentiments like that, pushed in a sustained effort over years to achieve this victory. A coalition of organizations, including American Jewish World ServiceBread for the WorldCARECatholic Relief ServicesMercy CorpsOxfam America, and others have helped lead the charge. Champions on Capitol Hill have seen it through. The tragic case of Typhoon Haiyan’s impact in the Philippines and resulting outcry for change emboldened advocates as the Farm Bill went to conference committee. This win is a big, lifesaving step forward.

However, local food aid procurement remains the exception to the rule. If fully funded, the new reform would account for about 5 percent of total food aid activities authorized under the Farm Bill. The best approach is to remove the straightjacket and allow the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to choose the best way to procure food based on individual circumstances. By doing so, an estimated 17 million more people could receive food aid at no extra cost. There is no one-size-fits-all method (see USAID’s great infographics here), and there will always be a need for some commodities grown in the US, but experts should make the call for each situation free of legislative constraints.

We came close to ending more of those restraints last year. President Obama proposed sweeping reform to allow food aid to be purchased locally. Another proposal,offered as a Farm Bill amendment by Representatives Royce and Engel, failed by only 17 votes[i]. The vote was remarkably bipartisan – the issue always has been. In fact, the Bush administration unsuccessfully called for reform. Local purchasing of food aid is something everyone can get behind.

2014 is the year to do it. We expect the Obama administration to continue to push for reform. Budgetary pressures aren’t letting up, mandating the kind of cost efficiencies local purchasing delivers. The need for food aid seems set grow in the short-term; the increasing threat of climate disasters and manmade disasters, like the plight of Syrian refugees, demand a more responsible approach.

2014 is also the International Year of the Family Farmer. What a great time to allow more farmers to respond to food emergencies and break cycles of aid dependency through a more flexible food aid system. Reform in the 2014 Farm Bill, while an important victory unto itself, has given us the momentum to do even better.

 


[i] Correction: Royce-Engel failed by 9 votes rather than 17

MFAN Statement: 2014 Farm Bill Clears Congress with Key Reforms to International Food Aid, Heads to President Obama for Signature

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014
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February 5, 2014 (WASHINGTON) – This statement is delivered on behalf of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) by Co-Chairs George Ingram, Carolyn Miles, and Connie Veillette

MFAN applauds Congress for including key reforms to U.S. international food assistance in the 2014 Farm Bill, which was approved by Congress following a 68-32 vote in the Senate yesterday and a 251-166 vote in the House last week. These reforms are an important incremental step in ensuring greater flexibility and efficiency of our international food aid programs. The legislation will now go to President Obama for his signature. We commend Congress, and in particular the leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees –  Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-MS), Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN), respectively – for including common-sense reform provisions to food aid in the five-year authorization bill.

These reforms include: the authorization of additional funds for Local and Regional Procurement, which will save time and money as well as support local farmers and food markets to better and more sustainably serve their own people; an increase in the share of funds that can be used for non-commodity expenses, allowing for a decrease in the need to monetize commodities; and greater transparency by requiring USAID to report on implementation costs of food assistance, including the cost recovery rate for monetized food aid.

U.S international food assistance programs are critical to helping hungry people around the world, but the current approach is outdated. The reforms included in this legislation will mean reaching more people in need more quickly and putting U.S. taxpayer dollars to better use.