Epstein on the Royce-Engel Amendment

The Perils of Protection
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
June 25, 2013

This past week, to much public attention, the House of Representatives voted down H. R. 1947, the Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013. The key provisions in this $940 billion and 629 page bill relate to food stamps and nutrition, which account for $744 billion of the bill. The Wall Street Journal points out that the food stamps program has ballooned from 21 million recipients a decade ago to about 47 million today. That monster program is then paired with about $194 billion worth of budget allocations to commodity support programs ($40 billion), crop insurance ($93 billion), and conservation ($56.7 billion).

Tucked into the corner of this sprawling farm bill was bipartisan Amendment #55, offered by the Republican House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce and Ranking Member Democrat Eliot Engel. The purpose of the Royce-Engel Amendment is to reform provisions of the 1954 Food for Peace Program (often called PL 480), which is used to supply food to individuals in need overseas. As currently constituted, the legislation requires that aid be provided in kind, and not in cash, and that all of shipped goods be carried in U.S.–flag vessels manned by unionized U.S. crews.

The Royce-Engel Amendment is designed to change this long-standing practice by allowing 45 percent of the funds that flow through this program to be sent in cash overseas where the money can be used to purchase food supplies in local markets. To everyone’s surprise the Amendment—itself a clear political compromise—failed by 17 votes with 203 in favor and 220 opposed. The larger issues it raised, largely ignored in the mainstream press, are worthy of a short post-mortem.