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July 8th, 2014
05:11 PM ET

Why Won't Washington Work: 65% of U.S. food aid budget not spent on food

Editor's note: Voters and lawmakers often express frustration about the gridlock in this town. Some of it is ideological, sincere difference on issues, but often there are other reasons why things here just don't function. "Why Won't Washington Work" is our series, attempting to shine a light on the reasons, the root causes, behind some of the hurdles to solving problems.

By CNN chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper, and Kim Berryman

Washington (CNN) – International typhoons, hurricanes, and earthquakes leave behind devastating scenes of poverty and need.

If you had about a $1.5 billion every year to send food to such desperate areas, how would you do it?

That is the job of Dr. Rajiv Shah, of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. His goal is to have the flexibility to buy food as close to disaster sites as possible, and get it to those in need as if their lives depended upon it, which they do.

"It actually takes us about three months to buy food here, and ship it, and get it to, say, the Philippines after a disaster," Shah told CNN. "It takes two to three months to get that done."

The way the U.S. provides international food aid is an antiquated and bureaucratic tangle. Food largely has to be purchased here in the U.S., and then shipped on boats by U.S. cargo carriers to the trouble spots.

The Government Accountability Office says that 65% of the money for this aid program is spent on shipping and business costs – not on food.

"In the last 10 years, our capacity to reach people has been cut in half. And it's been cut in half because of higher food costs, higher shipping costs, and the cost structure of this program," Shah said.

If there were complete flexibility with the budget, Shah estimates the program could feed 8-10 million more people, "and probably, you know the difference in time line is days versus months," he says.

So why is it still done this incredibly time consuming way? Because of clout wielded by the those who make money from this current system.

Last year more than 65 agriculture and maritime organizations sent a letter to Congress and the President urging them to uphold America's role in food aid.

After all, it's a system that has helped shipping companies and unions win billions in government contracts, companies like Maersk.

Maersk gained fame from the big-sea-turned-big-screen saga of Captain Richard Phillips who was kidnapped by pirates from the Maersk Alabama in 2009. At the time, nearly 5,000 metric tons of food aid was on board that ship, en route to African refugees.

CNN reached out to Maersk, the company had no comment on this story.

There's also the transport workers unions. The president of the Transportation Trades Department at the AFL-CIO told Congress last year that any change to the current system "would undermine our nation's maritime and agriculture industries and their workforces."

U.S. jobs and money for U.S companies are both important priorities. But that is not what this money is for, the money is to help victims of disasters abroad.

These interests wield serious clout.

The two leading maritime unions gave more than "three quarters of a million dollars to members of the current House of Representatives in the 2012 election cycle," according to the Center for Public Integrity. Members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats receiving that money, voted against Shah's efforts to reform the program, 83 to 29, the groups reports.

"We've gotten a lot of bipartisan support for President Obama's reform proposals which have been designed to reach millions of more children during disasters, designed to do it more efficiently and effectively and that supports been bipartisan," he added.

"We just want to reach as many people as we can, as efficiently as possible," Shah said.

After five years of pushing, Shah now has flexibility for about 20% of the funds the way he ses fit. But in his view, that is not enough, and leaves too many people in need for far too long.

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