113th Congress Sets Politics Aside for Critical Development & Humanitarian Issues

Photo By: Ryan Bowley (CC)

2014 has been a busy year for the international humanitarian and development communities. From the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria, 2014 saw an unprecedented number of humanitarian crises around the globe. At the same time, this year's midterm congressional elections brought partisan tensions to new highs inside the Washington Beltway.

In the wake of a hard fought election, however, the 113th Congress did set aside their differences enough to address some key issues of interest to our community. And before going out of session this December, Congress both approved a number of key international development and humanitarian assistance measures, and built vital momentum that will be crucial in passing food security legislation in the 114th Congress.

Congress Passes Water for the World Act

One solid win for the development community this session was the passage of the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act (H.R.2901). This bipartisan piece of legislation strengthens accountability for water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs already underway by sharpening the criteria used to direct existing funds to the countries and communities around the world most in need of WASH assistance.

Championed by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Ted Poe (R-TX) in the House and Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Bob Corker (R-TN) in the Senate, the bill was signed into law by President Barack Obama on December 19, 2014. This victory was the result a multiyear effort with support from a broad coalition of NGOs, including InterAction.

Congress Rejects Food Transport Restrictions

Another win was the removal of harmful cargo preference provisions from the Coast Guard reauthorization bills that would have hurt food aid around the world. Earlier in the session the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2014 (H.R. 5769) was amended to include a provision (Section 321, formerly Section 316 in H.R. 4005) that would have eliminated the requirement that the U.S. Maritime Administration consult with other agencies, including U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), over cargo preference implementation and enforcement. The result could have diminished the effectiveness of U.S. international food assistance programs on the ground and reduced their impact on beneficiaries in critical need of food assistance.

InterAction and its partners voiced their collective opposition to these harmful cargo preference provisions, and our efforts paid off: with the strong support of several Senate and House offices, including Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Chris Coons (D-DE) and Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), we were able to strike these harmful provisions from this legislation. The new bill (S. 2444) subsequently passed both chambers unanimously and will have no negative impact whatsoever on U.S. international food aid programs.

Congress Funds Key Humanitarian and Development Programs

Congress also approved funding that will be vital to the global effort to combat Ebola in West Africa. The passage of the so-called "CRomnibus" (H.R. 83) provides crucial funds to top development and humanitarian priorities, including the Ebola emergency response funds. With $3.3 billion for International Disaster Assistance funds, the humanitarian community will have more robust support to assist communities ravaged by conflicts or natural disasters.

In an age of budget austerity, it is noteworthy that the overall amount of money in State and Foreign Operations accounts increased by almost $300 million this session. While the U.S. signaled its commitment to lead the global response to humanitarian crises, it also maintained $2.51 billion for development assistance appropriations and even increased funding for USAID. These funds will be used to build lasting foundations in education, health, and economic opportunity that will make vulnerable communities more resilient and better prepared to face the challenges of the 21st Century. InterAction will build on the progress of FY2015 by continuing to advocate for strong funding for international humanitarian relief and development accounts as the FY2016 appropriations process begins again in the new year.

Congressional Support Grows on Food Security

Finally, this Congress saw considerable momentum grow on the issue of food security. Introduced this past September, the Global Food Security Act (H.R. 5656) was designed to build upon the successes of existing U.S. global food and nutrition security efforts, including the Feed the Future Initiative, and strengthen our nation's collective commitment to helping developing countries grow their way out of poverty and overcome hunger and malnutrition.

The act was sponsored in the House by Reps. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Betty McCollum (D-MN) and a companion bill was introduced in the Senate (S. 2909) by Sens. Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA) and Mike Johanns (R-NE). The House moved quickly on H.R. 5656, and passed the bill by a unanimous voice vote on December 10. And although the Senate ultimately did not take up the legislation, the bill has strong bipartisan and bicameral support that shows promise for more action in the 114th Congress.

We know that there is more work to be done, and InterAction looks forward to the opportunity to work with those willing to champion the voices of the most vulnerable around the world in the upcoming 114th Congress. But as 2014 comes to a close, it is also important to take a minute to thank our Representatives and Senators for the notable actions they took during the Lame Duck session.

Their actions in the last weeks of the 113th Congress will help save lives around the world and assist ongoing U.S. efforts to empower those in vulnerable communities working to build stronger water, sanitation, and health systems. And that is a fact worth celebrating.