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Roberts: Food stamps should be on table in deficit reduction

By JERRY HAGSTROM

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Senate Agriculture ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said today that food stamps should be on the table along with farm subsidies in federal budget deficit reduction, but a key Farm Bureau lobbyist said it is unlikely Congress will make a substantial cut in a program that is feeding 43 million people during a recession.

In a telephone call to the annual meeting of the Crop Insurance Research Bureau here, Roberts noted that the presidential debt commission report, which proposed cuts to many programs including farm subsidies, did not recommend cutting nutrition programs.

“They are picking what they call farm subsidies rather than look at the total agriculture budget,” Roberts said. Asked by The Hagstrom Report if his comment meant that food stamps — now officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP — and other nutrition programs should be included, he said “we have to look at the entire budget in terms of whatever percentage Congress agrees should be cut.”

Roberts also noted that when he was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in the mid 1990s, budget reconciliation did include the nutrition programs.

Roberts has had a complicated relationship with the food stamp program. While he noted today that he helped cut and change the program in the 1990s, Roberts in the same period convinced then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., to continue food stamps. In the “Contract with America,” the 1994 House Republican campaign manifesto, Gingrich had proposed ending federal food stamps and turning the money over to the states as a food assistance block grant. Roberts’ success in convincing Gingrich to keep the program essentially saved the farm bill, because without the reauthorization of food stamps that the bills contain, urban legislators would have little reason to vote for a farm bill.

Roberts also said that the Congressional Budget Office is not going to give the agriculture budget function credit for the $6 billion cut that the Obama administration negotiated in crop insurance subsidy cuts. “I am going to be the CBO stand-in and remind the members over and over again of our contributions,” he said, referring to the upcoming debate. Of the $6 billion cut, $4 billion went to budget savings and $2 billion has been spent on other farm programs.

American Farm Bureau Federation lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher said in a separate presentation here that she doubts Congress will cut much from nutrition programs.

“You can look at those nutrition programs and say that’s where you need to get the money, but you have a couple of problems,” she said, noting that these programs make up 75 percent of the USDA budget. Anti-hunger advocates are going to remind the public that unemployment remains at more than 9 percent, Thatcher said, and that 43 million people — one in seven Americans — are on food stamps, and that one of every eight Americans is lining up at food banks.

She noted that a future increase in the food stamp budget that was in the economic stimulus package was cut twice this year when Congress decided to pay teachers' salaries and pass the child nutrition bill. She also recalled that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that food stamps help many millions of people, while farm subsidies go to about 1 million people.

“If you think we can prevail against the nutrition community in the upcoming debate, think again,” Thatcher said.