Debate on nutrition section of stalled farm bill resumes
By Larry Dreiling
The U.S. House, trying to restart the stalled debate on the 2013 farm bill, was expected last week to consider the Republican-sponsored separated nutrition section that would cut food stamps by an estimated $4 billion annually and allow states to put broad new work requirements in place for recipients.
The legislation also would end government waivers that have allowed able-bodied adults who don’t have dependents to receive food stamps indefinitely. It also would tighten eligibility standards and try to reduce the rolls by allowing states to require drug testing for recipients. Further, it would bar convicted murderers, rapists and pedophiles from receiving food stamps.
The vote comes after the House defeated a wide-ranging farm bill in June because many conservatives believed the cuts to the nearly $80 billion-a-year food stamp program weren’t high enough. That bill would have made around $2 billion a year in cuts.
The vote comes as new, independent, estimates released Sept. 16, show that as many as 3.8 million people would lose their food stamp benefits in 2014 under the House GOP plan.
The Congressional Budget Office numbers paint a darker picture than the GOP has admitted to thus far. The contradictions add to the tensions surrounding what is already a bitter fight over the nutrition title of the House farm bill, according to a report in the Capitol Hill newspaper Politico.
According to the CBO, 1.7 million people would be forced off the rolls in the coming year if the state waivers are repealed as proposed by Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. Another 2.1 million would be dropped in 2014 as a result of the GOP’s proposed tighter eligibility rules.
In both cases, the impact would decline as the economy improves and more jobs become available. But on average, CBO estimates that a total of 2.8 million people would lose their benefits over the next decade, and another 850,000 households will see an average reduction of about $90 a month in benefits.
The net 10-year savings for the government would be approximately $39 billion, nearly double what was first recommended by the House Agriculture Committee in June and far in excess of the $400 million the full Senate has approved.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma retains jurisdiction and is listed as the sponsor on documents filed with the House Sept. 16. But, according to Politico, Cantor and his staff have dominated the preparation, and their work product will go to the House floor without ever being subject to any real legislative markup.
The Politico report indicates Cantor consulted with conservatives before crafting the package and the Heritage Foundation, with close ties to Cantor’s policy staff, is an important ally and influence.
The severity of the cuts is causing concern among rank-and-file Republicans with low-income rural communities in their districts and farm-state Republicans complain bitterly of being caught in the middle.
Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio has delayed appointing House conferees on the farm bill until Cantor has had his shot. This makes it harder for Republicans from agricultural districts to go against the leader.
Caught in the middle are states like Washington and New York that are already using federal funds to teach job skills to food stamp recipients but could lose millions in aid if they were to fail to comply with the new direction set by the bill.
Mothers with preschool children would face tougher work requirements. At the same time, the CBO score suggests that some of the most-contentious pilot programs in the package could end up adding to federal costs—not savings.
Food stamps have for decades been part of farm legislation. But House leaders separated the food and farm programs after the bill’s June defeat and passed a farm-only bill in July. Republican leaders, led by Cantor, then crafted the separate food stamp bill in an effort to appease conservatives who have been aggressively pushing for cuts to domestic food aid.
One in seven Americans use food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the cost of the program has more than doubled in the past five years.
It is unclear whether the Republican leaders have enough votes for passage. Democrats have lined up solidly in opposition, and some moderate Republicans have indicated they may not be able to stomach the cuts. Even if the bill does pass, the cuts are unlikely to become law, given the wide disparity between numbers in the House and Senate bills as they go into a conference committee.
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, blasted the legislation in a Sept. 16 statement.
“Instead of appointing farm bill conferees, the Republican leadership has decided to move forward with an unnecessary and divisive nutrition bill,” Peterson said. “Even if this bill is defeated, as it should be, I worry the debate will eliminate any remaining goodwill needed to pass a farm bill.
“The majority is again catering to the extremes of their party, pushing messaging bills to nowhere. It’s time to get serious. If they will just get out of our way, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees can work together and provide farmers, ranchers and consumers the certainty of a five-year farm bill.”
Peterson and other rural Democrats worked closely with Lucas in writing the original farm bill. But Peterson, along with every other Democrat voting that day, voted against the farm-only bill that passed the House in July, warning of food stamp cuts to come.
The president of the National Farmers Union, Roger Johnson, urged members to vote against the food stamp bill. National farm groups have long supported inclusion of food stamps in farm bills to garner votes from urban lawmakers.
“Separating nutrition programs from the farm bill was a mistake from the very beginning,” Johnson said on Sept. 16.
Mary Clare Jalonick of The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by email at email@example.com.