Peterson predicts GOP food stamp cuts, opposition to commodity target price increase
April 16, 2012 | 08:05 AM
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., believes Republicans on the committee will attempt to cut as much as $33 billion from the food stamp program over 10 years during a markup on reconciliation instructions Wednesday, but said he will advise Democrats on the committee not to take that exercise seriously because the House budget resolution will not become law.
In the interview Friday with The Hagstrom Report, Peterson also said he believes there is a 50-50 chance that Congress will pass a farm bill this year and that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has aligned herself with Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., in opposing an increase in the target prices that would trigger commodity subsidy payments.
(Roberts has said publicly he opposes the target price increases that were included in the draft proposal that was sent to the failed supercommittee on deficit reduction in December. Stabenow could not be reached for comment over the weekend.)
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., announced late Friday that the committee will hold a markup Wednesday on reconciliation instructions to cut farm bill spending . (See below.)
The bill sent to the supercommittee included a $4 billion cut to food stamps over 10 years, and Peterson said he believes Republicans may add another $10 billion to that or possibly bring the total to the entire $33 billion.
Peterson also said that if some Republican members of the committee are not satisfied with the initial proposed cut, they might propose amendments for bigger cuts to food stamps. Lucas told him the Republicans are considering taking the entire cut out of food stamps, Peterson said. That would upset some Democrats on the committee, particularly Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a strong advocate for nutrition programs.
But Peterson said he is going to advise the Democratic members of the committee not to devote too much energy or political capital to the issue, saying that the House budget resolution cannot have an impact because the Senate is unlikely to pass a budget resolution, and the two bodies will never agree to a resolution this year.
“This isn’t going to mean anything anyway,” Peterson said, adding that he may advise his Democratic members early this week to “just vote against it” and “not cause any trouble,” so that the reconciliation exercise “will not haunt us when we do the actual bill.”
Peterson said he would also favor voice votes in the reconciliation exercise, but that there will probably be recorded votes because some Democrats and some Republicans will want the votes on food stamps on the record.
In terms of a truly meaningful reconciliation cut, Peterson said, “We are not sure they want to work with us or we want to work with them.”
Peterson said his staff has concluded it would be possible to cut more than $4 billion over 10 years from food stamps — now formally known as the supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP — without reducing general benefit levels. But, he added, “I don’t think we can get to $15 billion without having some impact benefits.”
The proposed $4 billion cut was based on stopping states from increasing the amount of benefits for which people were eligible by tying the benefits to the low-income heating and energy assistance program. States have been able to increase those benefits by providing people a small LIHEAP benefit, but Stabenow has called that system “a loophole.”
The Food Research and Action Center and other anti-hunger advocates are vigorously opposed to ending the use of LIHEAP as a way to increase benefits, but Peterson said he supports that change and also believes there are other ways that eligibility could be tightened up.
Food stamp benefits were raised in the Recovery Act, but that higher level of benefits is expected to end sometime in 2013. The benefit increase was supposed to last until regular inflation triggers kept the benefits at the new levels, but food inflation has been so low that Congress used budget authority for those benefits to pay for a program of teacher salaries, Medicaid and to fund the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Acts.
President Barack Obama and anti-hunger advocates have proposed extending that increase, but Peterson said he opposes that.
Peterson said he warned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., “that in my view they should forget about any increased benefits in the climate we are in.”
“A lot of the controversy in the farm bill this time is going to be around food stamps,” Peterson said, adding that he believes that there will be splits among the Democrats on the committee over the food stamp issue. Some members, he said, “would probably vote against the whole bill” if they are not satisfied on the food stamp issue, but “my own view is that it is not helpful to have a big fight over this.”
Turning to the overall farm bill, Peterson said some days he believes the chances are 60-to-40 that it will pass this year, and some days he things 40-60 that it won’t, which makes him think the prospects are 50-50 at this point.
He said that if the bill does not pass both houses by August, Congress would have to extend some authorities and wait until the lame duck session.
Some Republicans are talking about an extension, Peterson said, but others won’t go along with an extension if there are cuts.
“Once you start doing cuts,” Peterson noted, “you start writing a farm bill.” If the bill expires, he added, “we are going to lose baseline. Some Republicans may want us to lose baseline.”
The conflict between the two Oklahoma Republicans — Sen. Tom Coburn, who last week released a report on crop insurance he commissioned from the General Accountability Office that said the government could save $1 billion per year, and Lucas, who criticized it — “sums up the problem that we’ve got,” Peterson said.
“A lot of people on the Republican right are where Coburn is at, [though] not necessarily on crop insurance,” he said. “They are of the mindset we’ve got to cut more.”
Peterson said he opposes more cuts to crop insurance until the effect of the cuts in the 2008 farm bill, the renegotiation of the standard reinsurance agreement and the rerating of certain policies is fully understood.
Congress and the agriculture community will also have to address the Environmental Working Group’s call for a $40,000 payment limit on crop insurance, he said.
“People have their agendas. They are not shy about manipulating things. Now they won that battle [on direct payments] they are going to create another battle. To some extent this is how they earn their living,” he said.
Stabenow is “not sharing” the details of the bill she is developing, Peterson said, but he added he recently had a conversation with her that showed “she is having a lot of problems trying to sort out” the various commodity proposals.
Stabenow has also joined with Roberts in opposing increases in target prices, he said, adding that “I’ve got peanuts and rice calling me, upset about whatever is going on over there.”
That battle over commodity programs and target prices “is an internal fight in the Senate, it is not something we can help with,” Peterson added.
Stabenow “is determined” to mark up a bill by the end of April, he said.
“Probably the only way she can sort this out is to let it go to markup. If it causes a backlash from the South or some place, that will diminish the possibility of getting a bill done. But [the need for a farm bill] won’t go away, whether senators become realistic or not.
“But if the Senate can get it done, if it has things worked out on the commodity side, on crop insurance, on conservation, it will put a lot of pressure on the House to do something.”
If the Senate passes a bill with a $23 billion cut over 10 years and the House passes a bill with a $33 billion cut, that would be "conferenceable," Peterson said.
Peterson was on his farm in Minnesota during the telephone interview. He said he had “calmed down” a lot since leaving Washington, and was trying to figure out how to make his new corn planter function. But he said he intends to leave planting until the next congressional recess the first week of May.
“My goal today is getting my corn planter set up so I can plant my corn. I am way up north by Thief River,” he said. “We have another break the first week in May, we’ll wait to plant until then."