Food Stamps Loom Over Negotiations to Pass U.S. Farm Legislation

October 29, 2013 03:09 PM


The farm bill, normally left to rural lawmakers, has emerged as a partisan flashpoint as House Republicans have targeted food stamps for cuts.

Oct. 29 -- U.S. lawmakers meeting tomorrow to reconcile House and Senate versions of agricultural policy legislation will find the table crowded with members who have deeply held and widely divergent views on food stamps.

The tension is underscored by conferees the House leadership has added to the House-Senate negotiating committee: Tea Party Republican Representative Steve Southerland of Florida and Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio, chairwoman of the all- Democrat Congressional Black Caucus.

With a new law needed before outmoded programs potentially double milk prices early next year, both President Barack Obama and House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor have called for passage of a bill. The appointment of conferees from outside traditional rural constituencies -- and who are polar opposites on food stamps -- shows the law may not be the place where a new era of deal-making will dawn.

"It wouldn’t come as any surprise if the nutrition title is the toughest thing to negotiate," said Representative Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican and conferee.

Spending on food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the biggest conflict surrounding the bill, which benefit processors including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. and insurance companies such as Wells Fargo & Co. along with grocers including SuperValu Inc. By subsidizing food purchases, the farm bill encourages bigger production, while its conservation and economic development programs promote rural business growth and a cleaner environment.

Food Flashpoint

The farm bill, normally left to rural lawmakers, has emerged as a partisan flashpoint as House Republicans have targeted food stamps for cuts.

The Democratic-controlled Senate would cut $4 billion over ten years to food stamps in its farm-bill version. The version passed by the Republican-led House would cut $39 billion over a decade, require work or job training, let states drug test- recipients as a condition of eligibility and set food aid on a different authorization timeline from farm subsidies. That would divorce food stamps from agriculture program, a goal of Tea Party-affiliated groups.

Record Spending

"I know where he stands, he knows where I stand," Fudge said of Southerland. "Obviously we are in very, very different places in our position, but I just hope there will be more reasonable people on the conference, people who understand in a very different way then maybe he does."

Food-stamp spending reached a record $78.4 billion in fiscal year 2012, the last year data was available, amid a 77 percent increase in annual average food-stamp enrollment since 2007. Monthly food-stamp enrollment peaked in December at 47.8 million and was 47.6 million in July, the most recent month available.

The appointment of Southerland "says there are a lot of people from around this place who are very interested in the details of this bill," Lucas said in an interview. "So am I." Fudge’s appointment is a sign that Democrats are serious about finding a solution, he said. Southerland did not respond to requests for comment.

Stimulus Lapse

A 5 percent reduction in benefits unrelated to the agriculture debate takes effect later this week, as Congress allows a temporary spending boost included in the 2009 economic- stimulus law to lapse. The conflict over food stamps illustrates how deeply divided Washington has become and how everything, even a traditionally less-partisan farm bill, has become part of a winner-take-all atmosphere, said Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.

"For Democrats, this is a part of the welfare state that remains popular. For conservatives, this is a symbol of excess and waste," he said. "Both sides wants to make it a symbol of what each despises about the other."

It’s also a frustration to the traditional farm and nutrition organizations who in the past have had a strong enough political coalition to get their programs through Congress. More than 250 agricultural groups wrote farm-panel members and leadership today, urging a five-year law that keeps farming and food stamps together.

"Developing and adopting comprehensive farm legislation has been an effective, balanced arrangement for decades," wrote groups ranging the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farmer group, to the Florida Watermelon Association and the Oregon Wheat Growers League.

Other differences to be negotiated between House and Senate plans include whether or not to revamp dairy subsidies, payment restrictions and conservation requirements on crop insurance, the biggest U.S. farmer-aid program, and the replacement of about $5 billion in direct payments to farmers with greater protections against low prices and failed harvests.

Beyond leadership, House conferees also include appointees from the Foreign Affairs and Ways and Means committees, looking at international food aid and tax issues in the bill.

The bill is H.R. 2642.

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