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Food-Stamps Fight, Elections Combine to Slow Farm Law

Farm Bill Debate
Corn farmers, who raise a crop worth $76 billion last year, would lose $6 billion in payments over a decade under the Senate bill. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Congress’s election-year calendar and conflicts over food stamps may make this week’s House Agriculture Committee consideration of a farm-aid and nutrition bill the measure’s last advance before current law expires at the end of September.

House leaders would rather sidestep divisions over food-stamp spending and delay the bill until after the November election, analysts and lobbyists say. Appropriations legislation and possible votes on repealing President Barack Obama’s health-care plan will compete for time. Given the political thorniness of the agriculture bill, a series of short-term extensions is possible, said Harwood Schaffer, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee.

An on-time bill “won’t happen if the Republicans can help it,” said Schaffer, a researcher in the Agriculture Policy Analysis Center. “Only if they are in a bind where the pressure from farm country is strong enough to override the Tea Partiers will it happen.”

Record food-stamp spending has made the program a prime target for cuts as lawmakers try to forge a five-year reauthorization of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs. The nutrition initiative cost $75.7 billion last year, double the level of four years earlier and the biggest expense in the USDA’s budget. In April, about 46.2 million people -- more than one in seven Americans -- received the assistance.

Competing Plans

The House Agriculture Committee plan released last week by Chairman Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, would save $35.1 billion over 10 years, with $16.1 billion from food stamps. In a budget-related measure in May, lawmakers called for $29.5 billion in cuts by dropping 1.8 million people from assistance rolls. The Senate’s agriculture bill, passed last month, is designed to save $23.1 billion over a decade, cutting food stamps by about $4 billion.

“This is harmful for a culture and a country, when you have one in seven people thinking it’s OK for someone else to feed them,” Representative Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who is chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said today at a Bloomberg Government breakfast. “We do need to reform that, and frankly we need to scale it back.”

Floor Fight

The $16.1 billion in food-stamp cuts proposed by the House panel may not be enough to persuade Majority Leader Eric Cantor to schedule what could be a difficult floor fight this month, said Mary Kay Thatcher, head lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer group. The House needs to pass a bill this month to leave time to resolve differences with the Senate version before the law expires in September, she said.

“We’re never going to get this on the House floor,” she said in an interview last week. “They’re going to be busy” on other legislation. Additionally, Republicans would rather rewrite farm policy after the election, when the party may have regained control of the Senate from Democrats, she said.

“Leader Cantor supports Chairman Lucas in his markup of the farm bill,” Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Republican, said in an e-mail. Cantor’s office hasn’t listed a farm bill as a priority in a memo outlining his July schedule.

While Congress has shown that it can pass legislation -- it approved a highway-spending bill last month -- the House leadership delayed committee consideration of a farm law for two weeks, in order, it said, to debate the annual agriculture appropriations bill. That spending proposal too has been delayed.

‘Bright Spot’

The House Agriculture Committee still plans to get a bill passed on time, according to Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the panel’s top Democrat. “We jeopardize one of the economic bright spots of our nation’s fragile economy” without it, he said last week in a statement.

Still, nutrition programs divide Democrats too. Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said he would oppose the farm-bill draft tomorrow because of its food-stamp provisions.

“We’re going to oppose these cuts, and we’re going to oppose this bill,” he said at a Capitol Hill rally featuring 10 Democratic members of the chamber. “And if this bill comes to the House floor, we are going to do everything in our power to defeat this bill.”

Without a new law by Sept. 30, farm programs would revert to underlying legislation written in 1949 when circumstances were different. Waiting for that to happen would create “panic” among farmers who need to know the shape of government support to make planting and financial decisions, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last month.

Prior Lapses

Still, a lapse in authorization isn’t unprecedented. In recent decades, only one farm law, in 2002, passed on time. The most recent law was approved on June 18, 2008, more than eight months after the previous plan expired.

Food stamps and crop insurance, the biggest nutrition and subsidies programs, would function without interruption regardless of congressional action because of other legislation.

Current programs are regularly extended until a new plan passes, and with farm profits near record levels, subsidies are important to growers than in the past, and delays can be managed, Thatcher said.

“We’re going to be talking about this for a long time,” she said.

The law governs programs that feed needy families, improve air and soil quality, encourage rural development and provide a safety net for farmers who suffer crop or income loss. Production subsidies, which may reach $11 billion this year, aid agribusinesses such as Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Cargill Inc. by lowering the costs of their raw materials.

The bill is S. 3240. The House version hasn’t been assigned a number.

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