The House Agriculture Committee on Thursday unveiled its approach for a long-term farm and food bill that would reduce spending by $3.5 billion a year, almost half of that coming from cuts in the federal food stamp program.
The legislative draft envisions reducing current food stamp spending projections by $1.6 billion a year, four times the amount of cuts incorporated in the five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill passed by the Senate last month.
The two chambers are in a race to reach a compromise before Sept. 30, when the current farm bill expires.
USA Today reported that lawmakers are considering an extension to the current farm bill as an October deadline to pass a new $500 billion law rapidly approaches.
Lawmakers remain optimistic that Congress could still pass a bill before the current measure expires on Sept.30. But a series of hurdles stand in the way including the upcoming election, pressure to reduce government spending, a short legislative calendar to get work done and fundamental differences between House and Senate lawmakers.
"We have had this discussion for the last year-and-a-half that an extension might have to be an option that we pursue," said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., a member of the House Agriculture Committee. It's been an option "recognizing the challenges we face in Washington getting things done in an election year."
Conservatives in the Republican-led House are certain to demand greater cuts in the food stamps program, which makes up about 80 percent of the nearly $100 billion a year in spending under the farm bill. Senate Democrats are equally certain to resist more cuts in a program that now helps feed 46 million people, 1 out of every 7 Americans.
The House proposal, like the Senate measure that passed on a bipartisan 64-35 vote, also does away with the much-criticized direct payment system whereby farmers get federal assistance even when they don't plant a crop. Both put greater emphasis on crop insurance to help farmers get through natural disasters and falling prices.
The House bill differs, though, in giving farmers a one-time choice between a revenue loss program to cover shallow losses before insurance kicks in and a new target price program to see producers through deep, multiple-year price declines. The Senate bill contains only the revenue loss program, overriding the objections of Southern rice and peanut growers who have traditionally relied more heavily on price support programs.
House GOP leaders have shown little enthusiasm for taking up the farm bill because of resistance from conservatives to the bill's price tag, but the Agriculture Committee's chairman, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and top Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, stressed its importance.
Lucas said the bill, the result of two years' work, "is reform-minded, fiscally responsible policy that is equitable for farmers and ranchers in all regions." Peterson said that by failing to act before the September deadline, "We jeopardize one of the economic bright spots of our nation's fragile economy."
The bills, in addition to setting commodity support and nutrition policy, also authorize conservation, trade, foreign food aid, rural development, forestry and energy programs.
While the bills cover five years, the Congressional Budget Office measures their effects over 10 years, and in that time period the House bill would save taxpayers more than $35 billion, the Senate bill $23 billion. The House savings come from trimming about $14 billion in the commodity support programs, $6 billion by consolidating 23 conservation programs into 13 and $16 billion from food stamps. Savings in the Senate bill are similar for commodities and conservation but $12 billion less from food stamps.
The House measure, like its Senate counterpart, leaves intact a program that protects sugar producers from foreign competition and creates a new subsidized insurance program for cotton. It does not include several amendments attached to the Senate bill, including one that required those getting subsidized crop insurance to comply with conservation requirements and another that reduce by 15 percentage points the share of crop insurance premiums the government pays for farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000. Currently the government bears an average 62 percent of crop insurance premiums.
The House bill also contains a provision, passed separately by the House last year, that eliminates a requirement that farmers obtain additional pesticide application permits under the Clean Water Act.