merchant marines food aid
For some, the U.S. Merchant Marine represents an organization that shuttles American imports and exports around the world during peacetime while becoming a naval auxiliary during wartime. For others, they represent the largest obstacle to food aid reform.

Current food aid regulations stipulate that at least 80% of aid must be shipped by U.S. citizens on U.S. flagged vessels. Critics argue that needless money and time is spent hauling items around the world when food could be purchased locally in a much more timely fashion.

President Obama proposed a food aid overhaul in 2014’s fiscal budget that would reach an estimated 2 to 4 million more people within the year. Specifically, he wished to expand local and regional procurement procedures and food vouchers.

U.S. mariners were not amused by this proposal, however. When the food aid amendment attached to the farm bill reached the Congress floor, maritime lobbyists worked strenuously to ensure it wouldn’t pass, and succeeded.

The U.S. merchant marines provide a unique service for the United States. As they are not employed by United States military, they are able to service both the government and private sector.

The duality of their role in regard to the United States is significant for a number of reasons. The Navy League, a special interest group representing the U.S. maritime community, reports that they provide over 33,000 jobs for Americans, account for $1.9 million in economic output and $24 million in household earnings. Although food aid reformists argue that the shift in these numbers would be slight, by only a few hundred, Merchant Marine advocates contend that change would usher in the end of the merchant marines all together.

The Merchant Marine’s ability to transport troops and supplies during wartime, known as sealift, may be severely impacted if reform results in job loss. The U.S. Maritime Service was established by President Roosevelt in 1938 in anticipation of needed shipping vessels to both the European war front and Pacific Theater. The Merchant Marine provided invaluable service during the war, and current mariners argue that their services are still necessary.

Despite the mariners concerns, the Obama Administration has plans to counteract any negative effects the reform may usher in by providing aid directly to the U.S. Merchant Marine.

The administration proposes shifting $25 million of the efficiency savings that will be obtained through the food aid reform to the Department of Transportation’s Maritime administration. According to the White House International Food Aid Fact Sheet, this additional funding will provide a vehicle to support sustainment of militarily-useful vessels and a qualified pool of citizen merchant mariners.

Although this may not be the solution the merchant mariners were hoping for, the strong advocates for food aid reform may ensure that this is the best they can expect.

Emily Bajet

Sources: The Center for Public Integrity, U.S. Merchant Marine FAQ, The Maritime Executive, The White House: International Food Aid Fact Sheet