WASHINGTON (DTN)--Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-MS, asked the Senate Agriculture Committee June 18 to advise him on how to respond to a letter from Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles, R-OK, asking for recommendations on how to cut one percent, or $6.6 billion, in fraud and abuse in mandatory programs in the agriculture budget, but the only senator who reacted was Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Tom Harkin, D-IA, who said the committee should ignore the request.

While waiting for a quorum to vote on the nomination of Tom Dorr to be U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for rural development, Cochran said he had received a letter from Nickles and House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-IA, noting that the FY04 budget resolution calls on committees to submit a "formal report" by Sept. 2 on recommendations on how to achieve one percent savings in mandatory spending by cutting "waste, fraud and abuse."

Cochran noted that the budget resolution is not binding and said "there is no precedent as to how to proceed."

Harkin said that OMB had sent a letter stating that the error rate in food stamp payments amounts to nine percent of benefits. But Harkin said OMB's figure proved an erroneous suggestion for making a cut because the error rate for FY01--the most recent year for which data was available--was 8.6% and that error rate is a combination of "overissuance" of 6.4% and "underissuance" of 2.19%.

Underissuance, Harkin said, refers to the lack of payments to people who are eligible for the program or who get payments smaller than those for which they are eligible. The 2.19% underissuance is money the government should have paid out, Harkin said. Harkin also noted that USDA Undersecretary for Food and Nutrition Services Eric Bost has recently testified to Congress that the error rate on food stamps is lower than it has ever been.

"Our job is not to react to requests that have no basis in reality," Harkin said.

The only Republican senator who commented on the request was Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, who suggested to Cochran that he find out how other chairmen are handling the request.

Both farm and anti-hunger lobbyists have said they are concerned about how the committees are going to calculate the suggestions for cuts on the basis of waste, fraud and abuse.

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