by Priya Bapat, Humanitas Global
Here in DC, spring has finally arrived. The cherry blossoms are in full bloom and everyone is celebrating the end of the cold weather. Springtime is also a time for another annual DC tradition - federal budget appropriations.
Normally, for those working in the food security world, this is a time to fight against budget cuts in the international assistance budget and hope, against all likelihood, that this may be the year when there will be reforms to our less than efficient food distribution and subsidization policies. This year, while funding for domestic and international food assistance programs are at risk for serious budget cuts, there are also interesting changes anticipated for the nature of international food aid delivery.
The budget process follows more or less the same process each year. By April 15, both the House and the Senate are supposed to pass non-binding budget resolutions that outlines their priorities for the coming fiscal year. While Senate Democrats and Republicans have not been able to reach an agreement for the past four years, this year both the House and Senate were able to pass budget resolutions on schedule. The House and Senate budget resolutions are separate and can vary greatly on key points. Bread for the World has a helpful guide that outlines the key differences between both the House and Senate budgets on the topic of global and domestic hunger and nutrition.
Budget Process Overview
In theory, the House and the Senate have some guidance from the President's office on the executive branch's priorities and proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. The President is supposed to release his budget by February 1, before the legislative budget discussions begin in each chamber. However, these have been released late in recent years. President Obama is set to release his budget this week, two months behind schedule.
Once the House and Senate budget resolutions are passed, each chamber works on separate appropriations bills which detail specific line-by-line budgets for twelve different thematic areas, each of which is represented by a subcommittee in the Appropriations Committee. Each Appropriations subcommittee debates and proposes legislation which are then sent to the main floor for full chamber discussion and vote. Both the House and Senate must vote on and pass twelve separate bills for each of the subcommittee themes. Together, they form the complete federal budget.
Once the House and Senate have finalized their respective budgets, representatives from each chamber meet to reconcile the differences between the two budgets. Once these differences are resolved, the House and Senate vote and pass the same budget and each of the appropriations bills is sent to the President to be signed into law. In theory, all of this must be done by October 1 of each year.
The Budget and Food and Nutrition Security
This year, there are major pressures to reduce the overall budget, by cutting expenditures, increasing government revenues, or some combination of the two. Programs geared toward ensuring food and nutrition security may face major challenges this year.
Each of the budget line items is given a numerical code called a budget function according to its thematic area, much like the Dewey Decimal system. For the food and nutrition security community, there are several important budget accounts to track, such as the 150 account (International Affairs - includes USAID budget), 350 (Agriculture - includes part of overseas food assistance programs), 600 (Income Security - covers domestic food aid programs such as SNAP and WIC).
What are the major budget issues being debated for food security this year?
- Cuts to Domestic Food Assistance Programs: The budget resolutions passed in the House and Senate have wildly different approaches to food assistance programs in the U.S. The Senate resolution protects these programs, while the House resolution includes massive cuts to food assistance and poverty alleviation programs, such as a $135 billion cut to SNAP (food stamps). Sequestration has already reduced the amount of funds available for programs such as SNAP (food stamps) - it is tough to imagine families in need continuing to feed their families without these types of programs.
- Cuts to International Assistance Programs: Despite comprising less than 1% of total budget expenditure, the foreign aid is always highly contested in terms of the final appropriations amounts. Food security programs are included primarily in the International Affairs and Agriculture accounts and it remains to be seen what the final amount will be.
- Changes to Food Aid Delivery Systems: There are strong signs that the President's budget will include a proposal to overhaul the way that international food aid systems currently work. As a cost-cutting measure, the President is set to propose ending the practice of shipping American-grown produce to countries in need and instead focus aid money on purchasing food from sources closer to the aid recipients. Even before the President has submitted his budget, members of Congress and some American shipping companies and food producers are already protesting this proposal.
This time of year is extremely important for those working in the food and nutrition security space to make Congress understand how essential these programs are to protecting food security both domestically and around the world. A well-fed and healthy population is crucial for ensuring prosperity, economic growth and peace.
There are many advocates working to protect and expand these programs, such as Bread for the World, Feeding America, Share Our Strength, the ONE campaign, InterAction and others. However, these organizations alone cannot protect these rights without the full support of the food and nutrition security community and the general public.
For more information on how to advocate for anti-hunger and foreign assistance legislation, visit any of the many resources available online that guide you in how to contact your representative and let them know why they should make fighting hunger a priority.