05/15/2007 10:24 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Support the Bush Administration and Oxfam: Reform U.S. Food Aid

Every now and then progressives should support the Bush Administration: when the Bush Administration happens to be right.

After all, if President Bush says that two plus two equals four, it's still four.

The Bush Administration has proposed a small reform to U.S. food aid that could have significant positive effects. It has proposed to relax the restriction that currently requires that nearly all U.S. food aid be purchased in the United States. The proposed reform is supported by Oxfam and other development groups.

This is a commonsense reform for several reasons. Most immediately, requiring that U.S. food aid be purchased in the U.S. can prevent the U.S. from effectively supporting international efforts to respond to a crisis. On April 7, the New York Times reported:

"Within weeks...rations provided by the UN World Food Program are at risk of running out for...500,000 [poor people in Zambia,] including thousands of people wasted by AIDS who are being treated with American-financed drugs that make them hungrier as they grow American doctor who runs a nonprofit group treating more than 50,000 Zambians with AIDS [said] 'it will result in the death of some patients.' ...the World Food Program made an urgent appeal in February for cash donations so it could buy corn from Zambia's own bountiful harvest...But the law in the U.S. requires that virtually all its donated food be grown in America and shipped at great expense across oceans...a process that typically takes four to six months."

As the Government Accountability Office has pointed out, the current restrictions mean that more and more U.S. tax dollars are being eaten up by shipping and administrative costs so that fewer and fewer people are being helped for the same amount of tax dollars.

Ultimately, the goal of U.S. aid should be to make itself obsolete, or at least less needed over time. Allowing U.S. food aid to be purchased in poor countries supports food production in these countries, so they can become more self-sufficient. It provides income to poor farmers, so helps the poor twice.

The current restrictions are supported by powerful corporate interests in the U.S., like ADM and Cargill, which are benefiting from restrictions that place tax dollars in their pockets. These interests, and their supporters in Congress, argue that relaxing the restrictions will undermine the food aid program by undermining its domestic political support in the U.S.

While it is no doubt true that these corporations will be less enthusiastic about U.S. food aid if it contributes less to their profits than it does today, it doesn't follow that the poor people who are the intended beneficiaries of the program would be worse off. The current program is so inefficient that a reformed program could help more people with fewer tax dollars. Under the Bush Administration's proposed reform, the majority of U.S. food aid would still have to be purchased in the United States - up to a quarter could be purchased in poor countries. If the taxpayer subsidy to Cargill and ADM is not removed, but merely reduced, will they take their ball and go home? It seems rather implausible.

Somehow European countries manage to "untie" their aid in this way. Surely we can at least do so partially. The reform proposed by the Bush Administration deserves to be tried. If, contrary to reasonable expectations, this reform has the bad consequences that its corporate opponents predict, the status quo can easily be restored.

You can ask your Representatives in Congress to support this commonsense reform here.