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Vilsack: Conaway has ‘no foregone conclusions’ on SNAP, but review unlikely to affect crop insurance

2015_0112_ConawayVilsack2Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, left, met Friday with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, right. At Vilsack's left is Todd Batta, assistant secretary for congressional relations; at Conaway's right is staff director Scott Graves. (House Agriculture Committee)


SAN DIEGO — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said here Monday that House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, told him Friday that he plans “a soup-to-nuts review of the SNAP program with no foregone conclusion attached to that review in his mind.”

Vilsack added that Conaway recognizes some members may already have views on the future of the program, but he has not reached any conclusions himself.

Vilsack said USDA will provide the committee with information on who the program benefits and what the department is doing regarding fraud and mistakes in payments.

The secretary noted that there are also studies showing that children who have received SNAP benefits have better health outcomes and said the program should not be cut “for the sake of getting to a budget number.”

Vilsack also noted that the number of beneficiaries is expected to decline as the economy improves. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted recently that a million childless adults are expected to lose benefits as unemployment rates go down and as states no longer issue waivers of the three-month limit on their benefits.

There have been some concerns in agricultural circles that cuts to SNAP could lead to pressures to cut the crop insurance program, but Vilsack said he doesn’t think “we will jeopardize” crop insurance, especially since there are no more direct payments.

“I hope there isn’t a great deal of sentiment for reopening all of the farm bill. I still have bruises and cuts and the memories of the last couple of years. I don’t think anyone would want to get back into that process.”

Vilsack added that he had not yet spoken with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., but that there is “no more vigilant defender” of crop insurance than Roberts, who wrote the crop insurance law.

Vilsack acknowledged that the Obama administration has proposed cuts to crop insurance but described those cuts as “around the edges” and said they would not compromise the program but make it easier to defend the program to non-farmers.

People in the countryside understand crop insurance is the principal risk management tool, Vilsack said, and that dramatic changes would send Congress back to appropriations bills that “do not necessarily just deal with the disaster at hand” and “get laden with other things.”

“Taxpayers are better with this system than no risk management tool,” he said.

Both Vilsack and Conaway said Friday’s meeting went well. A Vilsack spokesman sent the following email to journalists:

“Secretary Vilsack and Chairman Conaway had a very productive meeting on a wide range of issues this afternoon. The secretary looks forward to working together with Congressman Conaway and ranking member [Collin] Peterson [D-Minn.] to find bipartisan ways to continue to help strengthen America’s agriculture economy.

“Agriculture proved a bright spot of bipartisan collaboration in the last session of Congress,” the statement said. “After today’s meeting, Secretary Vilsack is even more convinced that the same will be true in the upcoming session.”

Conaway said in captions for the photos he posted on Instagram, “I had a great meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. We are both committed to working on behalf of our farmers and ranchers who feed and clothe America and the world. This was a productive start to what will be a good working relationship with Secretary Vilsack and his staff.”