With the ultimate fate of the 2012 farm bill still hazy, the House Agriculture Committee met Wednesday for a contentious debate on the size of the food stamp program while generally signing off on the size and scope of commodity programs for farmers.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the committee was only partway through the 100 amendments that had been filed to the bill.
The Senate approved its farm bill in June with strong bipartisan support but House Republican leaders appear reluctant to bring the 557-page bill to the floor of the House before the month-long August recess despite the legislation's projected $35 billion in deficit reduction over the next decade.
"If the House leadership fails to bring up this farm bill before the recess, they will jeopardize one of the economic bright spots of our nation's fragile economy," warned Minnesota U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the panel's top Democrat.
If the legislation isn't renewed by September 30th, an outdated, decades-old farm bill from the 1940s will become law, potentially at great cost to taxpayers.
FOOD STAMPS TAKE CENTER STAGE
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The committee ultimately voted down an attempt by Democrats to restore an estimated $16.5 billion in funding for the Supplemental Assistance Program (SNAP) which provides poor Americans, including more than 500,000 Minnesotans, money to buy food.
Many Democrats argued the cuts, which would restore nationwide income and asset eligibility tests to the program, would be devastating to SNAP recipients.
"The people that we are talking about here are poor," said U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "These are people who are not trying to game the system, they're just trying to get by."
Republicans pointed to SNAP's rapid growth since 2008 and said the program's spending needed reining in. SNAP and other nutrition programs are projected to account for nearly 80 percent of farm bill's almost $1 trillion in spending over the next decade.
"I want poor people to have food, I want children to eat well," said U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis. "But we must have this debate honestly...SNAP is going up every year."
Peterson was one of a handful of Democrats who voted against their party members' attempt to restore SNAP funding. He argued that the overall legislation had been carefully negotiated to minimize the negative impact on the poor while addressing Republicans' concerns about the program's growth.
"The bottom line is we need to move this legislation and I understand that these cuts are what's needed in order to get the farm bill through committee and to the House floor," said Peterson.
While the legislation makes major changes to farm subsidy programs, including an end to direct payments to farmers and expanding federally subsidized crop insurance, those changes received little attention during Wednesday's markup hearing.
DAIRY AND SUGAR AMENDMENTS DEFEATED
The most contentious change to commodity programs in the hearing was an amendment put forward by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that would scale back a dairy program in the bill to stabilize fluctuating dairy prices that was brokered by Rep. Collin Peterson. Dairy farmers who opted into the voluntary program would agree to limit their output at times when dairy prices fall drastically. The amendment was defeated after a lengthy debate.
Goodlatte also introduced an amendment which would have rolled back the federal government's sugar program, which includes a quota on imported sugar and a commitment by the federal government to buy excess domestic sugar on the market and convert it to ethanol.
Peterson, who represents many of Minnesota's sugar beet farmers, led the opposition to the amendment.
"We're fixing a problem here that doesn't exist, as far as I can see," said Peterson, arguing that consumers would see no change in prices if more imported sugar entered the American market.
That amendment was defeated with strong bipartisan support, 36-10.