House takes up farm bill

Cutting hay
A tractor cuts through alfalfa on a farm near McIntosh, Minn., on July 3, 2012. Some House legislators hope to pass a farm bill to reauthorize agriculture and food stamp programs. But this may be a make or break week for those efforts.
Photo courtesy of Jim Stordahl

While this fall's elections are expected to dominate the Congressional agenda, some lawmakers still hope to pass a farm bill to reauthorize agriculture and food stamp programs. But this may be a make or break week for those efforts.

The Senate already passed its version of the bill last month, and the House Agriculture Committee is set to meet Wednesday to consider amendments to a bill drafted by U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla. and Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota.

But longtime American Farm Bureau lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher is concerned that the top leaders in the Republican-controlled House, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and House Majority Leader Erik Cantor of Virginia, don't want to the bill to receive a vote in the full House.

"I don't see any indication from Mr. Boehner or Mr. Cantor that they want to give this bill House floor time," Thatcher said.

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Tea Party movement conservatives and urban Democrats are both likely to be alienated by some of the proposed changes to crop subsidies and food stamps in the House Agriculture Committee's bill.

On crop subsidies, the House bill would keep the current counter-cyclical payment program that the Senate scrapped. Under that system, if prices fall below a target price, farmers would receive a payment from the government.

This farm bill raises those target prices between 30 and 40 percent for major crops such as corn and soybeans.

"Commodity prices have soared in the last five years and farm groups want to lock in these high prices in case low prices come back," said Bruce Babcock, a professor of economics at Iowa State University. "Then they're guaranteed very large payments."

The House Agriculture Committee leaders argue their bill shaves $35 billion off of the deficit over the next decade.

But Babcock argues those savings would disappear overnight if currently high crop prices plunge — as has happened before — and the government has to pay out for farmers' losses.

The House bill also keeps a version of an expanded crop insurance program in the Senate bill that would guarantee up to 85 percent of farmer's revenue.

Budget hawks worry that measure could wind up being costly for taxpayers.

Peterson, who last month said he opposed that proposal, now reluctantly supports it.

"Well, it's a political reality," he said. "I did this when I was chairman too. I did stuff in the bill that I didn't really want to do. But you've got to do what you've got to do to get the votes."

Perhaps the biggest fight will be over food stamps, which now make up as much as 80 percent of farm bill spending and have grown rapidly due to increased poverty following the recession.

The Senate bill cut about $4.5 billion from food stamps over the next decade, mostly by making slight adjustments to eligibility.

The House bill adopts that same approach but goes much further, making about $16 billion in cuts over a decade.

Thatcher and other farm lobbyists are quick to defend those cuts by arguing that various subsidies directed to farmers have been cut as much as 25 percent while food stamps are taking a proportionally smaller hit.

"You're looking at less than half or less than one percent depending on whether you're talking $4 billion or $16 billion in food stamps that the nutrition program will take," Thatcher said.

But Babcock, the Iowa State economist, said making cuts based solely on proportionality rather than need reflects poor priorities on the part of lawmakers.

"You're taking money from a program that has very, very strong means testing &mdsh; you have to be poor to get food stamps — and then giving it to a program that has no means test and where a great proportion of the payments go to rich, wealthy farmers," Babcock said.

Peterson said nearly all of the Agriculture Committee's Democrats have signed off on the cuts to food stamps because that is the only way to convince House Republicans to vote for the bill.

But Peterson said he and the other Democrats expect the Senate's food stamp cuts to prevail if both chambers can agree on a bill.

"Part of the reason they're voting for it is that this is not going anyplace in the Senate and everybody knows that," he said.

While Peterson said the more than 500,000 Minnesotans who receive food stamps won't be affected by the House food stamp proposal, some advocates disagree.

"In essence they're saying 'we're not cutting benefits,' " said Colleen Moriarty, executive director of the nonprofit group Hunger Solutions in St Paul."Well, they are cutting benefits. They're cutting benefits drastically because they're eliminating millions of people from being able to use the program."

Lawmakers and lobbyists say the size of the food stamp program will likely be the most contentious element of the bill. The outcome of that debate will determine whether or not a farm bill passes before the current farm bill expires Sept. 30.