A divided Congress and a feuding House chamber will make it difficult to focus on what needs to be done to keep U.S. programs for international HIV/AIDS relief and food aid.
One of the key leadership changes in Congress is the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Rep. Michael McCaul, who was the top Republican on the committee in the last Congress, has taken the gavel. McCaul has been a supporter of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, and global food security issues in the past—he co-sponsored last year’s Global Malnutrition Prevention and Treatment Act and the Global Food Security Act of 2022.
Many people in Washington are saying the contentious dynamics in Congress will make it a struggle to get much approved, or even voted on, in the year ahead. For international humanitarian and development advocates, the focus will likely be on renewing two vital mandates, the Farm Bill and the reauthorization of PEPFAR.
PEPFAR’s mandate is up for renewal — a process that happens every five years. While the initiative has typically received bipartisan support, advocates say that education is essential with so many new members of Congress who might be unfamiliar with its work.
The easiest way to pass the bill would be to make no changes beyond extending the dates in the existing legislation – changing the date from 2023 to 2028. The key question is whether advocates or lawmakers will want to push for more changes, which would bring with it added risks. A more involved discussion about the bill could open the door to partisan political debates that could derail the process and complicate passage.
UNAIDS’ report to the International AIDS Conference in Montreal in August 2022 underscored how years of steady progress against the disease had struggled during the crisis provoked by COVID-19, mass displacement and several international conflicts.
“The report has really bad news,” said Matthew Kavanagh, a special adviser to the executive director for policy, advocacy and knowledge at UNAIDS, in a speech to the interfaith gathering. “But there’s also some very good news, because we’ve built community, because we’ve built resiliency, because faith leaders have come together with community leaders and people living with HIV and built a response that’s able to respond in times of crisis.”
With these stresses in mind, some international health advocates suspect that PEPFAR itself might be interested in some changes, especially as the State Department looks to create a Bureau of Global Health Security and Diplomacy, which would include the U.S. Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator that runs PEPFAR. But to open the door to restructuring is risky when lawmakers have other priorities that could use funding.
The Farm Bill
Discussions have already begun around the Farm Bill, which is up for renewal again this year. The legislation authorizes key international U.S. food aid programs, including those that address both emergency and nonemergency hunger and nutrition needs.
In a recent Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, a USAID official asked lawmakers to give the agency more flexibility in how it delivers food aid so that it can be more effective. This is not a new request. The bill has typically included a number of provisions aimed at supporting the U.S. farming and maritime industries that international humanitarian groups have criticized as more costly and less effective.
While these debates aren’t new, there is a greater “sense that there has got to be a better way,” to address the growing global hunger challenges, said Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services.
The polarization in Congress could make it difficult to find consensus on such a complicated piece of legislation—even one that has traditionally been bipartisan—to support the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, Food for Peace, and Food for Progress.
“What we’ve been hearing from [congressional] offices … committee staff, both House and Senate, is that nobody has the faintest idea how this is going to go,” O’Keefe said. “The trend line is towards less order [in Congress], and I think this is a further step in that direction because it’s just so unpredictable.”
Faith in action
Tell Congress to renew funding for PEPFAR at https://mogc.info/PEPFAR
Tell Congress to renew the Farm Bill at https://mogc.info/FarmBill
Photo from PEPFAR Instagram account of Antiretroviral therapy used in frontline treatment for HIV-AIDS