Should Congress cut the huge chunk of food aid that now goes to Egypt so that the US aid pie can be divided more evenly among needy nations? That question vexes lawmakers, and its answer could alter significantly US food policy for years to come.
Egypt has been receiving a whopping 44 percent of the food that the US sells on easy terms under Title I of the Food for Peace Program.
But lawmakers are no longer convinced that it's such a good idea.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is expected to debate legislation April 30 that would put a ceiling of 30 percent on aid to any one nation.
At stake are delicate trade-offs between the goal of helping feed a strategically vital country, like Egypt, and the desire to have a more evenhanded aid program that would encourage long-term food sufficiency in poor countries themselves.
Until now, support for Egypt has been treated like something of a sacred cow. Egypt's strategic importance has discouraged US lawmakers from tampering with the steadily rising aid programs for fear of negative effects of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's delicate domestic economy.
The Egyptians have used Title I aid --worth $312 million this year -- to help bring down food prices and ease consumer burdens.Indeed, when President Sadat lifted food subsidies in 1977, massive riots broke out in major cities, forcing the government to return to the subsidies.
But now the Egyptian economy is looking stronger. And some US congressmen, such as the sponsor of the new ceiling, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana, say they believe that no country should be automatically granted such a huge percentage of food aid from limited Title I supplies. Additional food support for Egypt, says Mike Van Dusen, an aide to Congressman Hamilton, could be financed in ways that do not deplete the aid available to other needy nations.
Some congressmen and agricultural economists also are convinced that the large influx of US food is discouraging Egyptian farmers from producing. With its present approach to Egypt, argues University of Chicago Prof. Theodore Schultz, the United States has been "underwriting a bad Egyptian policy" that pays farmers far less than the world standard for their crops.
The bill's 30 percent ceiling would not take effect until 1983, thus giving Egypt's economy time to adjust, say its backers.
The ceiling concept will face fierce opposition from the Reagan administration.
"The administration objects to any provision that restricts on our ability to respond frrely to whatever political conditions demand," explains Brad Langmaid of the Agency for International Development. "Title I should be used wherever the US strategic interests are best served."
Further, he argues, the discouragement of Egyptian farmers is not a strong reason for lowering US food aid to Egypt since, he believes, the Egyptian government, not availability, sets prices paid to farmers.
Opposition also is expected to be fierce from the Millers National Federation --whose members mill three-fourths of all the flour produced in the US -- since the vast majority of Egypt-bound food aid is sent in the form of flour.Egypt is currently the wheat millers' largest foreign customer.