House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, might need to take a refresher course in theater. Last week Lucas made public what most beltway insiders had suspected for some time--he does not believe the 12-member Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction will trim any federal nutrition programs. Ever since the 112th Congress was sworn in earlier this year, House Ag Chairman Lucas, Senate Agriculture Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, and Senate Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-KS, have been unified in saying savings will be found in farm bill programs. But if Lucas is going to throw in the towel and give credence to the Joint Committee that nutrition program cuts should not be part of deficit reduction, then Congress should cut the word "farm" out of "farm bill" and replace it with "food" or "welfare." Currently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spends 74 percent of its budget on nutrition programs, 7 percent on crop insurance, 5 percent on conservation, 4 percent on commodity programs and the remaining 10 percent is split between research, organic, rural development, trade, livestock and energy programs.
If Congress fails to find $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years then an automatic 9 percent cut through the sequestration process begins. However, most nutrition programs, including food stamps, are protected from the sequestration process. Based on the numbers presented above, if cuts to the nutrition program are not allowed, then there is no meat, bones or tendons left in the rest of the farm bill programs. It is important to note that the Joint Committee can find more than the $1.2 trillion in savings and they can find savings through programs that are protected under the sequestration process, such as nutrition programs. Of the four Agriculture Committee principals only House Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-MN, believes agriculture would be better off by taking the 9 percent sequestration hit. Lucas as well as Stabenow and Roberts believe it is in their best interest to offer suggestions to the Joint Committee, but if Lucas is going to pigeonhole the largest account of spending from deficit reduction, then the farm safety net is in serious jeopardy.
As has been the case for some time, Congress is playing a game of chicken. Members of Congress know the Joint Committee must report their savings plan just prior to Thanksgiving and the full Congress must approve the plan before Christmas. Cutting specific programs will not be an easy task, but if Congress fails then they turn the poker chips over to President Barack Obama's Office of Management and Budget. OMB would then decide where, when and how to make cuts. If you want to see what priorities Obama has given OMB just look at the past two years' budget proposals. That should be scary enough for Republicans, Democrats, Tea Party, Green Party and Independents to act.
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