Congress finally puts farm bill back in a forward gear

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The farm bill has been shifted from park into first gear with action by the House of Representatives to make cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), driven by conservative demands to reduce spending and put food stamp recipients to work. While the legislation was approved by a slim margin, it allows the farm bill to move to a conference committee with the House and Senate. Questions remain whether any House-Senate compromise will be acceptable by either House, as well as to the White House.

The 2008 Farm Bill should have been replaced a year ago when it expired, but that did not happen and it gained an extra year of life. With a prospective replacement a long way away, there may still be a need to call the 2008 legislation back into service. That is plan B for the Congress, if plan A fails, but plan A is still on the front burner.

The House turned up the heat late Thursday, as it approved a $4 billion per year cut in $78 billion per year SNAP funding at the same time the USDA was reporting more people under the poverty level and particularly more poverty in rural areas. The action came on a vote of 217 in favor of the funding limitations to SNAP versus 210 opposed to the cuts in H.R 3102. There were 15 Republicans who joined all 195 Democrats in voting against the bill

After the vote, Chairman Frank Lucas of the House Agriculture Committee expressed his happiness that the debate was over and the focus could move to the conference committee.

"I remain committed to getting a five-year farm bill on the books this year. Today's vote was another step toward that goal. The House passed a bill that makes common-sense reforms to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that encourages and enables work participation, closes program loopholes, and eliminates waste, fraud and abuse while saving the American taxpayer nearly $40 billion. SNAP serves an important purpose to help Americans who are struggling, so it is equally important that we ensure the program is working in the most effective and efficient way. I look forward to continuing conversations with my House and Senate colleagues as we move toward a farm bill conference," said Chairman Frank Lucas. 

Although Lucas’ committee had approved nutrition spending with a smaller cut, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor would not allow that legislation to proceed and stripped the nutrition funding from the farm bill for separate consideration.  Subsequently, the House will have two pieces of legislation, a farm bill and a separate nutrition program, and the Senate will submit its farm bill with a cut of only $4 billion over 10 years, not a $4 billion cut annually.  Authorities said the 2 House bills will have to be merged into 1 technically, however it was unknown if the forces that demanded the separation would vote to rejoin them.

House Majority Leader Cantor has yet to name the House members who will be part of the conference committee with the Senate.  The Senate members were named in mid-July, when it was thought the conference committee might be able to do its work during the August Congressional recess.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Debbie Stabenow says the House cut of the nutrition programs has no chance of acceptance in the Senate, and called the House maneuvers “a monumental waste of time.”

With the expiration looming September 30 for the extended farm bill, many USDA programs that are funded from one fiscal year to the next will expire.  At one point Republicans said they had no doubt that all work on a new farm bill would be readied in time to replace the legislation that is expiring.  However with many other priorities, ahead of farm policy it is uncertain where the farm bill will fall on the schedule.

The schedule had been complicated by the fact the House planned to be in recess next week, allowing only September 30th for a single day to vote on multiple appropriations issues, among other things.  However, early this week Cantor said he was cancelling the planned recess and the House would be in session the week of September 23rd.

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