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Reconciliation measure hints of farm bill proposals

By JERRY HAGSTROM

The reconciliation measure to cut food stamps by $35 billion that was passed by the House Agriculture Committee today is unlikely ever to become law, but the measure and the debate surrounding it gave hints of the proposals that will come up when the committee takes up the farm bill later this year.

The measure passed by voice vote, with Republicans appearing to favor it and Democrats opposed. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., convinced their members in advance not to ask for a roll call vote.

Peterson told the North American Agricultural Journalists on Tuesday that he wanted to avoid any on-the-record votes that would damage relations among committee members before taking up the farm bill.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.<br />Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.

Rep. Frank Lucas
Lucas told the agricultural journalists that he treasured “the comity” of the Republicans and Democrats on the committee, and said that the business meeting today was an “exercise” required by the budget resolution, that it is unlikely to become law because the Senate will not take up a budget resolution, and that the committee would make cuts to all types of programs under its jurisdiction when it takes up the farm bill.

Lucas also noted today that the budget resolution had required that the committee to cut $7.7 billion in savings the first year, $19.7 billion in five years and $33.2 billion over 10 years, but that the committee had managed to come up with cuts that amounted to a larger total.

In his opening remarks, Lucas noted that the cost of the supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP, as the food stamp program is formally known, has risen by 270 percent over the past 10 years, while the cuts would amount to only 4 percent.

“There is no denying that SNAP provides important support for many Americans,” Lucas said. “That’s why it’s important that we ensure the integrity of this program. By voting for this package, we are not only doing our part to reduce the debt, but also continuing to provide nutrition assistance for American families most in need.”

Peterson said, “Taking a meat ax to nutrition programs that feed millions of hard working families in an effort to avoid defense cuts is not a serious way to achieve deficit reduction,” Peterson said. “No wonder no one likes Congress.”

Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif.

Rep. Joe Baca
Republican and Democratic members of the committee gave a series of five speeches that were much more passionate than those by Lucas and Peterson.

As the speeches ended, Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., and Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., disagreed on a Biblical interpretation about instructions from God to help other people.

Baca, who once used food stamps to feed his wife and son, gave an impassioned defense of the SNAP program, called the political process “a sham,” and said “from a religious perspective the Lord has always told us to watch out for others.”

Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla.

Rep. Steve Southerland
Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., responded that he was “proud to be a born-again Christian,” and that no one in the scriptures had “given instruction to government.” God, he said, “was speaking to individuals, not to governments.”

As the exchange appeared to disintegrate into a shouting match, Lucas gaveled the room to order.

Baca did not get to answer Southerland, but in a response to a question at a news conference afterward told reporters, “I don’t think he [Southerland] knew what he was talking about.” The Lord, he said, didn’t care whether it was individuals or government that takes care of people. “Government needs to be involved,” Baca concluded.

The Agricultural Reconciliation Act of 2012 would:
  • Amend the American Recovery and Reinvestment of 2009 (known as the Recovery Act) to terminate the increased supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP benefits on July 1, 2012, rather than in 2013. This would cut spending by $5.9 billion.
  • Amend the 2008 farm bill to restrict SNAP categorical eligibility to those households receiving cash assistance as opposed to services through other low-income assistance programs. This provision would cut $11.7 billion in spending over 10 years.
  • Strike a provision in the 2008 farm bill that requires a state agency using a standard utility allowance to provide the allowance to each household that receives any payment under the Low Income Energy Assistance Act of 1981 and provides conforming amendments to the LIHEAP Act. This provision would cut $14.3 billion in spending over 10 years. The draft farm bill sent to the failed supercommittee on deficit reduction in December also contained a LIHEAP provision but its estimated reduction in spending was only $4 billion.
  • Amend the 2008 farm bill by striking a provision that provides a cost share to states for certain expenses incurred in operating an employment and training program. The provision would maintain federal grants but eliminate a 50 percent cost share that states now get when they spend more than their federal grant. This would cut spending by $3.1 billion over 10 years. Another provision would reduce funding for employment and training programs for fiscal year 2013 from $90 million to $79 million.
  • Amend the 2008 farm bill by eliminating the performance bonuses provided to states for effectively administering SNAP. This would cut spending by $480 million over 10 years.
  • Amend the 2008 farm bill by eliminating indexing on the Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Grant Program. This would set funding at $375 million and save $546 million over 10 years.
  • Extend the authorization for appropriations for nutrition programs in the 2008 farm bill through 2013 and provide for effective dates for the amendments.

Ellen Vollinger, Food Research and Action Center

Ellen Vollinger
Ellen Vollinger, a legal counsel with the Food Research and Action Center, said the proposed cuts were similar to those Congress had used previously when members were looking for money.

“It’s budget driven, not policy driven,” Vollinger said. She also noted that while some Republican members said that the provisions would not cut benefits, they would. The cut in the Recovery Act increase would affect all food stamp beneficiaries if it were to go into effect, Vollinger said.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said that if the measure were to go into effect, about 2 million individuals, disproportionately working families and seniors, would lose SNAP entirely and that the remaining 44 million individuals who receive SNAP would see their benefits cut.

In September 2012, every household of four would see its benefits cut by $57 a month and households of three would lose $31 a month, the center said.