WASHINGTON — The House Agriculture Committee has approved a five-year farm and nutrition bill that gives farmers new ways to protect themselves from bad weather and poor prices and slices about 2 percent off the $80 billion the government spends every year on food stamps.
The 35-11 committee vote comes three weeks after the Senate passed its version of the half-trillion-dollar bill and shifts the focus to the full House as Congress seeks to come up with a consensus bill before the current farm bill expires at the end of September.
House Republican leaders have shown little enthusiasm for taking up legislation that faces opposition from conservatives who say it is too expensive. Democrats, meanwhile, don't like the cuts in food stamps.
The bill costs nearly $100 billion a year, with 80 percent devoted to food stamps - the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The House legislation would save $3.5 billion a year from current spending levels, with $1.6 billion coming from tightening rules for food stamp beneficiaries. Savings in the Senate bill are $2.3 billion a year, of which $400 million comes from the food stamp program.
While the House legislation, like its Senate counterpart, envisions major changes in farm safety nets, the most heated debate during the 15-hour committee meeting was on food stamps. Amendments by both Democrats to erase reductions and Republicans to increase those cuts failed.
The panel defeated, on a 31-15 vote, a proposal by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., that would have eliminated all the proposed cuts to food stamps. The cuts, he said, would deprive some 2 million to 3 million people of food assistance and would "literally take food away from hungry people."
But Republicans pointed to the sharp rise in beneficiaries, from 19 million in 2002 to 46 million a decade later, and current policies that encourage further enrollment as a means to stimulate the economy or fight obesity by promoting healthier eating. The proposed House cuts would target practices by many states of waiving food stamp asset and income limits for people receiving other welfare benefits or giving minimal heating aid to people so they are eligible for increased food stamp assistance.
The committee chairman, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., stressed that no qualified people would be deprived of help. "I believe most Americans will agree that a 2 percent cut in food stamps is reasonable," he said.
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, also voted against the McGovern amendment, saying that while he was concerned about changes to nutrition programs in the bill, "I understand that these are the cuts that need to be done" to get the bill through the committee and the House.
Later, half of the 26 Republicans on the committee joined Democrats in a 33-13 vote to defeat an amendment by Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., to double the food stamp reductions to $3.3 billion a year. Several Republicans acknowledged that deeper cuts would make it more difficult to reach a compromise with the Democratic-led Senate.
The House bill also differs from its Senate counterpart by preserving a price support program that pays farmers when prices fall below certain levels. The target price system is favored by Southern rice and peanut farmers, who objected to the elimination of price supports in the Senate bill.
The House measure gives farmers a choice between the price support program and a taxpayer-paid revenue protection program included in the Senate bill that compensates farmers for modest revenue losses before subsidized crop insurance kicks in. The need for a strong safety net program became more pronounced as heat and drought threatened to seriously damage the Midwestern corn crop.
The committee also:
• Defeated, by 36-10, an amendment by Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., that would have brought changes to federal sugar policy that for eight decades has protected beet and sugarcane growers and sugar refiners by controlling prices and limiting imports. Goodlatte argued that government supports drove up prices, forced food companies to move overseas and cost jobs. The amendment was pushed by beverage companies, confectioners and consumer groups. Supporters of the current policy said it did not cost the government anything and protected producers from a surge in Mexican or Brazilian imports.
• Rejected, by 29-17, another amendment by Goodlatte and Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., that would have removed a requirement for dairy farmers participating in a new voluntary risk management program to also agree to be subject to supply management controls where they would have to cut production when surpluses drive down prices.
• Approved, by voice vote, an amendment by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that would bar states from regulating how agricultural goods are produced so as to restrict access to goods from other states. Examples cited were how states might set rules for the treatment of poultry in egg production.
• Defeated, by 25-20, an amendment by Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., that would have eliminated a proposed Agriculture Department catfish inspection office. Opponents of the new office said its real goal is to protect U.S. catfish growers from imports. The Senate approved a similar proposal.