The Bush administration is fighting congressional efforts to slash the amount of emergency food aid the United States provides around the world, saying the cuts could hurt up to 8 million people in dire need.
Members of Congress argue the reductions in aid, included in both the House-passed and Senate-passed versions of a new five-year farm bill, are needed to ensure there are enough dollars for longer-term projects that they say are equally, if not more, important because they can prevent drought, famine and other catastrophes in developing countries.
But the administration said it would hamstring the U.S. humanitarian response to global crises and the United States' ability to reduce suffering among the world's most impoverished people.
The debate cuts to the heart of philosophical differences over foreign aid and, for some, touches on the age-old question of whether it is better to give a man a fish to feed him for a day or teach a man to fish so he can eat for a lifetime.
At issue are provisions in both versions of the farm bill that would set strict limits on how much the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development can spend on "emergency" and "non-emergency" food assistance overseas.
As it has in previous years, Congress allocated $1.2 billion for the Food for Peace program through spending legislation that provides both types of aid. Of that, the administration wants $850 million for emergency aid and $350 million for non-emergency aid, but also wants to keep its ability to transfer cash between the accounts.
The administration frequently has used that waiver authority to move money from the non-emergency category to the emergency category to respond to urgent crises like the Indian Ocean tsunami, and it wants to keep such authority.
However, the farm legislation headed to conference negotiations between the two chambers would eliminate that authority and require the administration to spend between $100 million and $250 million less on emergency assistance and more on non-emergency aid, such as crop management and training programs.
The House bill would require the administration to spend $450 million of the $1.2 billion on non-emergency food assistance. The Senate measure requires that half of the total be spent on non-emergency aid.
The requirements would force the administration to look elsewhere for extra dollars if it wanted to spend more than is allocated for emergency spending.
Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and other supporters of the farm bill provisions said the administration waivers are depleting non-emergency development dollars.
Rep. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican, who added the House provision, said he did so on behalf of several international aid organizations that have seen money for their long-term development programs taken away for emergency aid.
If the administration wants more money for the emergency funds, they argue, then it can request more money overall for international food aid.