Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House together defeated a bill to reauthorize nutrition and farm spending last month. Conservative opponents did not think the farm bill cut spending deeply enough. Liberal opponents thought proposed cuts to the biggest component of the legislation, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, went too far. With little chance of a consensus to move a bill before the summer recess, House leaders dropped the SNAP component that has been part of the farm bill for decades. On Thursday, a narrow majority, 216-208, passed the farm bill, without the food assistance program.
The political maneuver may mollify some small-government hard-liners, but it bodes ill for the 21 million American households that currently depend on the federal food program, previously called food stamps, to keep hunger at bay. Proponents argue that removing from the bill “extraneous portions” allows the legislation to focus on agricultural policy. Actually, the maneuver does little to indicate a serious intention to reach common ground with the Senate, which passed farm legislation early last month, including its own substantial cuts to the food assistance.
The House bill would restructure several farm subsidy programs, among other measures eliminating a $5 billion program that pays farmers and landowners whether or not they plant crops; creating new subsidies for peanut, rice and cotton farmers and providing more assistance for fruit and vegetable farmers. The bill also would boost funding for crop insurance and reauthorize expired insurance programs for livestock producers.
It is highly unlikely the Senate will go along with separating farm legislation and the food assistance program. And if it were to do so, the White House rightly has threatened a veto. Still, the House vote raises a troubling question about the future of the national anti-hunger program. What happens to SNAP which, at roughly $74 billion a year, represents nearly 80 percent of the farm bill?
The bill that failed earlier proposed cutting $20.5 billion over 10 years out of SNAP (versus $4.1 billion in the Senate version). Another provision offered states an incentive to deny benefits to people who can’t find work and to keep half of the funds thus saved. It is not an exaggerated concern that the conservative House seeks to hollow out a program that responds directly to households in need. Or that it would be much easier to decimate a stand-alone program. Frank Lucas, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, promises to have a separate food-stamp bill “as soon as I can achieve consensus.” That is hardly reassuring in a Congress notorious for its lack of consensus.