As if they don't have problems enough, Congress and the president are squabbling about peas and beans.
Congress wants to tighten controls and de-politicize Food for Peace, the federal program that distributes surplus farm commodities to areas of the world threatened by drought, famine and other calamities.The program dates back to 1954 and, on the surface, appears to be a stellar example of a "have" country sharing with the "have-nots." Surplus commodities such as beans, peas, grain and dairy products are either given away or made available to needy nations at low prices. If they don't have any cash, the United States makes them a long-term, low-interest loan.
But over the years, presidents and other politicians have turned the Food for Peace program into a foreign policy tool, using it to reward allies and snubbing less friendly or less strategically vital but often needier areas of the world.
As an example, during the 1970s food and commodities worth $400 million were sent to Vietnam and Cambodia in a bid to shore up allies while the drought-wracked Saharan nations of Africa, stalked by famine, received a paltry $61 million.
The program suffers from a lack of administration. No single agency answers for distribution of commodities and no long-range or even short-range goals are articulated.
Some in Congress accuse presidents of using the program like a petty cash fund, dipping into it to reward a few friends. And the Agriculture Department wants to send the food to areas it considers potential markets, hoping if the people like it they'll eventually return to buy it.
Stories of mismanagement abound: Shipments of powdered milk to El Salvador exceeded the nation's entire level of consumption, causing its domestic dairy industry to collapse. In Egypt, so much wheat and flour were shipped in and baked into bread that officials found farmers feeding it to their donkeys.
So Congress is overhauling the program, trying to impose some workable controls and limit the broad food distribution authority granted in the 1954 law to the president.
Administration officials are, predictably, upset about what they see as a congressional power grab and are resisting the reforms.
Food and the threat of starvation should not be a foreign policy tool. Surplus food should be distributed to nations that need it, without preference for their strategic location or ranking on our list of allies.