Food stamps take center stage in farm bill debate
ST. PAUL — Food stamps are at the same time the biggest hurdle to enacting federal farm policy and a necessary part of passing the farm bill.
Discussion about cutting spending for the program to feed poor Americans dominated Tuesday as three days of U.S. House debate began on the farm bill, a 2,000-page document to establish federal farm and nutrition policies for five years. Hundreds of amendments have been crafted to the bill, with a vote expected Thursday.
"While I think it’s ridiculous to cut hundreds of billions of dollars, as some members have called for, it’s also just not realistic to refuse to cut one penny from these programs," western Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson said of food stamp cuts. "I do believe that we can make some reasonable, responsible reforms and, at the end of the day, find some middle ground that will allow us to complete our work on this bill."
Peterson, the top-ranking House agriculture Democrat, said the bill does far more than just cut food stamp spending.
"The farm bill gives farmers and ranchers the necessary tools to provide American consumers with the safest, most abundant and most affordable food supply in the world," Peterson said as debate opened.
It increases spending on some food programs and eliminates direct payments to farmers.
The nearly $1 trillion House bill would cut $20 billion over 10 years from food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A farm bill senators passed last week cut $4 billion.
President Barack Obama threatened to veto the House bill if it contains cuts as deep as the Republican-controlled House wants.
Speaking on the House floor, Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat who represents St. Paul and eastern Twin Cities suburbs, called that the food stamp program "a lifeline."
"It ensures they (recipients) don’t have to decide between buying medicine and buying food," she said.
She said 38,000 Minnesotans would lose food stamps if the cuts are allowed.
Republican critics say the program is out of control and unaffordable. Defenders say enrollment soared as a result of the financial distress of 2008 and reflects continued high unemployment.
Enrollment has doubled since 2004 and costs, at $78 billion in 2012, nearly tripled.
Farm interests know the food stamp debate is critical to getting what they want. Without mostly urban votes supporting food stamps, passing any farm bill would be difficult or impossible.
Lawmakers long ago combined nutrition program for the poor and farm spending into the same bill so they could get enough votes to pass both.
How to deal with aid for dairy farms split Peterson and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. However, while the dispute could prevent the farm bill’s passage, Peterson told the House Rules Committee that the two have agreed to accept the House’s decision on the issue and keep the bill moving forward.
The House bill would eliminate current dairy price supports, replacing them with a newly minted insurance program that pays dairy farmers when their profits decline. Peterson authored the dairy plan and other dairy-state congressmen voiced support in Tuesday’s debate.
"The new dairy safety net will address the volatility in the dairy market, helping consumers by making all milk prices more stable and eliminating the price spikes that are normal in today’s marketplace," Peterson said.
Boehner prefers a less aggressive dairy program. While the Peterson plan could result in farmers being forced to cut production in some conditions, Boehner does not want to go that far.
Amendments are expected to come up to in the next two days to change the dairy provision.
The bill would continue current sugar policies, which supporters say would help the American sugar industry compete against other countries that heavily subsidize sugar.
One of the ways the bill cuts spending is by trimming traditional direct payments to corn, soybean and other farmers by 36 percent.
The Environmental Working Group says the bill might not save as much as supporters say: The bill would trigger up to $6.9 billion a year in crop subsidies if market prices are as little as 15 percent lower than expected.
The bill would provide aid to "beginning, socially disadvantaged and military veteran farmers and ranchers," Peterson said.
The farm bill consumes less than 1 percent of the federal budget, but U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a southern Minnesota Democrat, said the spending is needed.
Dairy farmers in his area, for instance, are "struggling day to day trying to feed" their cows and a dairy safety net is needed, he said.
Walz urged support for the bill: "This is reform, this is savings, this is smart policy. It also gives the American people food security."
Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., said the bill is not perfect, but is needed.
"Good farm policy is important to our national security..." Noem said. "We can’t take our food supply for granted."
Reuters news service contributed to this story.