The nation’s largest domestic food aid program should not be the item that sinks the House farm bill when it reaches the floor in June, Agriculture Committee leaders say.
Just as with last year’s attempt at a farm program reauthorization, some conservatives say the bill’s proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, amounting to $20.5 billion over 10 years, do not go far enough, while many Democrats say they are too much.
Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., said this year’s bill (HR 1947) tries to restrain SNAP’s growth and to focus more on people living at 130 percent of the federal poverty level.
“I like to think we have a well-balanced bill and that we can draw from all sides. The extremes will never support us. I think we have enough of a coalition,” Lucas said Wednesday, shortly after his committee approved the five-year farm bill on a 36-10 vote.
Ranking member Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, who said changes need to be made to SNAP, would not comment on how much support he could muster from House Democrats. However, Peterson said, “We have the middle ground. I worked with Frank on this. He thinks he has what he needs to get the bill through his caucus.”
Even so, committee Democrats, led by Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, fell short in two attempts to block the proposed spending cuts to SNAP. In the effort, McGovern irked some Farm Belt colleagues by questioning the integrity of the federal crop insurance program.
One of his amendments would have delayed the SNAP cuts until the error rate of the federally subsidized crop insurance program matches the error rate for SNAP.
But Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said the crop insurance program is smaller than SNAP, which constitutes more than 70 percent of farm bill spending. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the federal government’s share of premium costs for the insurance program will average about $9 billion a year; SNAP costs will decline but average more than $70 billion a year.
Illinois GOP Rep. Rodney Davis said challenging crop insurance was “an attack on the Midwest farmer. Let’s not single out one certain program that is essential to the Midwest.”
McGovern shot back: “SNAP has been singled out in this bill.”
He noted that critics of SNAP, the program once known as food stamps, express concern about fraud, waste and abuse. However, he cited several recent cases of crop insurance fraud, saying there is a need to improve oversight of a program championed by major commodity farmers, their lenders and Democratic and Republican lawmakers representing districts where agriculture dominates the economy. On average, the federal government pays 62 percent of premium costs, while farmers pick up the remaining costs.
The House and Senate farm bills would restructure the financial safety net for farmers with new revenue and price insurance plans, as well as greater reliance on the crop insurance program.
The Senate bill (S 954) calls for $4 billion in SNAP spending reductions over 10 years by requiring states to provide eligible households with at least $10 in heating assistance to qualify them for SNAP monthly benefits. The House bill would set the threshold at $20 for a savings of nearly $9 billion over the next decade.
The House measure also would end states’ ability to set higher poverty level thresholds than the federal level and to qualify people who receive non-cash aid from other programs for low-income people. The House language would end the practice of categorical eligibility and limit SNAP eligibility to people who receive cash benefits from federal welfare or state assistance programs. This would provide a savings of nearly $12 billion over 10 years.
Several Democratic lawmakers joined anti-hunger and poverty groups Thursday at a news conference to argue against the House bill. They also oppose the smaller cut in the Senate farm bill.
Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Thursday the SNAP cuts in the House bill were unacceptable and the legislation’s restriction on categorical eligibility program was a non-starter for the Senate.
“I absolutely reject the level of cuts and the way this is done in the House,” she said.
New Tone for Panel
McGovern lost the voice vote on the amendment, but his critique of the crop insurance program reflects the changing makeup of the House Agriculture Committee — at least on the Democratic side.
In a recent speech to Oklahoma wheat farmers, Lucas estimated that fewer than half the members of his committee were involved in agriculture or represented districts where farming dominated the economy. Many were on the panel, he said, because of interests in conservation or nutrition, or because they needed a committee assignment.
McGovern, a senior Democrat and co-chairman of the Congressional Hunger Caucus, joined the committee in the 112th Congress.
Freshman Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, who once headed New Mexico’s Department of Health and its Agency on Aging, joined the panel this session. During Wednesday’s markup, Lujan Grisham seemed at ease discussing her state’s rationale for using 165 percent of the federal poverty level in determining eligibility for SNAP.
Democratic Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, New Hampshire’s first House Agriculture Committee member in more than 70 years, describes herself as a community advocate and attorney in her biography. During the markup Wednesday, she and Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., got into an exchange that highlighted the differences in their priorities.
Fincher focused on the proportion of spending on nutrition programs in the bill compared with those for farms, saying that SNAP constitutes 72 percent of the measure’s spending while agriculture programs receive 15 percent of funding. How much of the farm bill should go to non-farm programs, he wanted to know.
“What is the number?” Fincher asked.
Kuster said he was asking the wrong question.
“A lower percentage would be great. But you will be prepared later in this markup to spend billions of dollars on direct payments, on commodities, on corporations that get wealthier and wealthier and wealthier and you’re asking me whether we can feed starving children $1.32 per meal,” she said. “I have producers in my state, but I can tell you their food is not getting to the people who need it.”