A White House plan to modernize the major U.S. food aid program, by donating cash rather than American-grown food, is in trouble after fierce lobbying by farm groups, food processors, shippers and others who set out to sink the idea months before it was unveiled in President Barack Obama's fiscal 2014 budget.
The administration, which needs congressional approval to make the changes, is discovering that only a few lawmakers are prepared to publicly support the effort to send cash abroad to make the distribution of aid faster and more efficient.
They are outnumbered by lawmakers from both parties who want to kill the initiative or water it down substantially, based on letters sent to the White House and comments made at recent congressional hearings. In one letter 21 senators, including two key committee chairwomen, opposed the changes.
The administration's proposed changes, rolled out last month, have already been diluted.
The White House had hinted it wanted to convert aid entirely to cash donations. Instead, its fiscal 2014 budget proposal said that at least 55 percent of aid spending, or nearly $800 million of the $1.4 billion requested, would be earmarked to buy and transport U.S.-grown food.
It would still be the biggest change since the Food for Peace program was created in a mixture of Cold War "soft" diplomacy, compassion for suffering overseas and a practical use of farm surpluses. For six decades, U.S. food aid has meant shipping U.S.-grown goods thousands of miles to hunger spots. Other major donors have switched to cash donation.
Lawmakers were bluntly skeptical of the administration's plan, which was a response to some aid groups' assertions that using U.S. cash aid to buy food overseas would allow more needy people to be fed than if the United States continued to send food rather than cash.
"I don't think that's going to get done," Nebraska Republican Senator Mike Johanns told Secretary of State John Kerry at a hearing days after the administration's new aid formula was proposed. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack heard a similar message at a House appropriations hearing.
The criticism reflected not only the challenge the White House faces in altering the aid formula, but also the fact that its aid plan faces an uphill struggle for action at a time when Congress is focused on deficit reduction and overhauling the nation's immigration laws.
Congress could resolve the issue as soon as May or June, when it writes the annual funding bills for food aid and other agricultural programs. The long-term farm policy bill, another avenue for food aid reform, is scheduled for drafting in May.