The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Lucas: Super committee won't cut nutrition programs


House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said Monday that he does not expect the 12-member super committee trying to cut the federal deficit to make any cuts in federal nutrition programs.

“That’s just my gut feeling,” Lucas said in an interview after he met with National Farmers Union members during their fly-in to meet with lawmakers.

In his presentation, Lucas noted that nutrition programs, including the supplemental nutrition assistance program known as SNAP (formerly called food stamps), school lunch, the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC, and commodity distribution programs now total 74 percent of the USDA budget. The commodity, conservation and crop insurance programs make up 18 percent, and all other programs including rural development and research comprise 8 percent of spending at USDA.

If nutrition programs are not cut, he noted, that “concentrates everything” on the rest of the USDA budget . Under the debt-ceiling-deficit reduction bill Congress passed in late summer, food stamps, along with Social Security and most Medicare payments, are protected from cuts if the super committee is unable to reach agreement and sequestration involving across the board cuts in most federal domestic and national security programs goes into effect.

The super committee has the authority to cut food stamps, along with other entitlement programs as it tries to cut the deficit, but Lucas said he thinks it will leave nutrition spending “untouched. That’s the way it is going.”

A key Senate Democratic aide said he believes Lucas is right, but noted that the WIC program is definitely subject to cuts because it is an appropriated program rather than mandatory spending. Under sequestration, the Senate aide added, the Office of Management and Budget will determine what programs will be saved from cuts.

Lucas also said he believes Congress will prefer to vote for a super committee-developed bill rather than allow sequestration to go into effect.

“I believe the body [Congress] will stand on its head to avoid sequestration,” he said. House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has said he believes it will be difficult for the super committee to reach a deal, and that sequestration is the more likely path forward.

Lucas said he is appealing to the super committee members not to “ask us to do three, four times our part,” and also to let the Agriculture committees make the decisions.

Lucas also noted that many people believe that the farm bill is an “a la carte bill,” and that “you can cut out what you want.”

He has noted previously that cutting the direct payments program is a popular idea, but that ending that program could lead farmers to plant crops that conservationists have said are too intensive for some types of land.

“Trying to get across to folks that these programs are intertwined is a struggle,” he said Monday.

“There are a lot of good concepts that come in short paragraphs, but the devil is in the details in [conceptualizing a program] that will be equitable to the whole country and create momentum to pass the bill,” he said.

Lucas also said his preference is to write a bill in normal order next year, but if the super committee cuts too much, it might be necessary to write a bill this year to address the changes that would come from deep cuts.

He also said his staff is still trying to figure out exactly what programs besides food stamps would not be subject to cuts.

The Conservation Reserve Program contracts would probably be safe because most of those are written on a multiyear basis, but “almost everything else would be cut,” he said.