Senators of both parties are growing frustrated over the Biden administration's delay in delivering global food aid funding from the Ukraine aid bill Congress passed this spring - and are privately venting their frustrations to administration officials.
Congress overwhelmingly approved a $40 billion emergency aid package for Ukraine in early May, which included more than $5 billion for global food aid - a historic sum for a package of its kind. Lawmakers specifically designated $4.35 billion of that money to go toward disaster assistance funding, which can be dispersed quickly via cash transfers to vulnerable populations across Africa, the Middle East and other regions reeling from surging food prices and shortages exacerbated by Russia's invasion. Congress approved billions more in food assistance for Ukraine.
But more than a month after Congress approved the emergency measure, USAID and the Biden administration have yet to send out any of the funds, even as President Joe Biden and his top officials increase their public warnings about the war's impact on food prices and growing world hunger. It's led to exasperation among lawmakers and their staff, who say they can't get any explanations for the delay. And as Congress considers its spending bills for the next fiscal year, the delay is leading some Republicans to question why USAID and global aid programs need more funding when billions of emergency funds are sitting idle.
"I know the sincerity and a sense of urgency is shared by all parties here," said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who sits on both the Senate Agriculture and Foreign Relations Committees. "But at this point, every day literally people are dying."
Senators are now voicing their alarm directly to USAID chief Samantha Power and other administration officials in meetings and informal gatherings. USAID's Sarah Charles, a top official overseeing international humanitarian assistance, fielded questions from frustrated Hill staffers during a briefing Thursday afternoon, but didn't provide any explanation for the delays other than citing logistical challenges, according to two Senate aides. Charles also stunned staffers when she announced the administration plans to save more than half of the money from the $4.35 billion disaster funding for the next fiscal year beginning in October, when USAID expects continued food assistance needs. She said USAID plans to allocate about half of the funds before the end of September.
"It's an interesting decision for an emergency package," said one of the staffers.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who helped shepherd the billions in global food aid through Congress, said he discussed the issue with Power on Tuesday.
"She gets that a number of us have expressed concern about it and I think she's doing everything she can," Coons said in an interview.
The U.S. has announced several other chunks of money it intends to deploy for global food aid, including $280 million worth of U.S. food commodities to seven countries in Africa and the Middle East. But that process is incredibly time-consuming, both from a bureaucratic and logistical standpoint, and shipments aren't expected to arrive until the fall.
A USAID spokesperson didn't specifically comment on the delays but said the agency has committed millions in food aid funding from the first Ukraine aid package Congress passed in March, which included $2.65 billion in the disaster aid funding. The person said USAID's goal is to "rapidly scale up assistance" in the Horn of Africa and the most vulnerable regions first, while "working to ensure that we have funds available to maintain a steady infusion of resources into emergency food security programs through the fall and winter as the worst impacts of the crisis are felt globally."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a longtime proponent of U.S. global assistance to vulnerable countries as a national security matter, said he was planning to meet with administration officials this week about the delays in sending out aid from the Ukraine package. Graham helped World Food Program chief David Beasley, a former GOP governor of South Carolina, make the case to wary Republican senators for more food aid funding in the legislation, despite the significant cost.
And many senators say they were under the impression the bulk of the disaster funds would be quickly sent to the World Food Program, a branch of the United Nations, to provide emergency food assistance to fragile populations across the world that typically rely on grain exports from Ukraine. Thanks to a Russian blockade, most of that grain is currently trapped in the country, which has contributed to soaring food prices.
Before Russia's invasion, Ukraine provided more than 40 percent of Libya and Tunisia's wheat supplies and about one-quarter of Egypt's supply. U.S. officials say all three countries are primed for surging food costs and shortages to spark serious hunger crises, political unrest and mass migration flows in the coming months.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters on Thursday that Russia is using food as a weapon both inside Ukraine and especially against vulnerable African nations as the war is fueling "food shortages, rising prices and the risk of hunger."
A WFP official said the organization advised USAID in late May that it could distribute $2.86 billion from the Ukraine aid package by October through its existing crisis response program, if the funding was secured quickly.
Although there have been preliminary discussions, "WFP has received none of the additional funding yet," the person said. Still to be determined: which countries should receive the funding and amount of aid it should plan on sending.
USAID appears to be feeling the heat: A second WFP official said USAID staffers have recently accused them of trying to stir up involvement by lawmakers, which the person said was not the case. "They basically told us to call off the dogs," the second WFP official said, adding it wouldn't do WFP any good to make USAID look bad. "It's the biggest tranche of money in who knows when, we want it to be successful."
"In two years, there may be a different sheriff in town," the person added, referencing Republicans' chances of winning the White House or Congress. "If too much is still sitting there, we're going to look like we cried wolf."