Sunday, October 20, 2013

How Much Will Lawmakers Cut Food Stamps In The Coming Showdown?

Amid the shutdown clamor, House Republicans finally agreed last Friday to move the farm bill into the final stage of the legislative process: going to conference with the Senate to resolve vast differences between the two chambers’ bills.

Judging by the House leadership’s choice of conferees and the House’s instructions to the members who will represent it in negotiations with the Senate, a showdown over the food stamps program seems likely when the conference begins later this month. Here’s what to expect from that process:

Food stamps will be cut by somewhere between $4 billion and $40 billion. The Senate’s farm bill tightens eligibility processes that link the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) to other low-income programs in order to streamline the application process and lower administrative costs to the states. Those tightened rules cut $4 billion, or about 0.5 percent of the program’s current projected costs, over the next decade. The progressive-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gave cautious approval to the Senate’s eligibility strictures over the summer. The House bill, by contrast, slashes ten times as much from the program and imposes a much harsher set of rule changes on the program. The House cuts would drop as many as 6 million people from the program at a time when hunger is unusually high and food charities are already overstretched.

House leaders broke with precedent to ensure their top anti-food stamps crusader is on the conference committee even though he is not a member of the Agriculture Committee. While Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL)’s arguments are red herrings, his appointment as a conferee signals that House leaders are committed to the cuts he engineered in the bill passed in September. “Usually, only agriculture committee members negotiate the final farm bill; Southerland is on the leadership committee, not the agriculture committee,” Mother Jones’ Erika Eichelberger notes.

Meanwhile, the White House has threatened to veto the House’s steeper food stamp cuts on two occasions. The $39 billion cut passed in September earned a veto threat, and so did the $20 billion cut initially proposed in the House over the summer. The White House said it would veto the $39 billion cut in September. Whatever the size of the cut, it will come on top of an automatic cut to program benefits in November as a Recovery Act provision expires.

The two chambers have fewer differences on farm policy, but price supports are likely to be a sticking point. When the House moved to go to conference, it also approved a measure instructing its conferees to support limits on crop insurance subsidies for wealthy land owners. While Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) reportedly opposed the measure, which makes farmers with adjusted gross incomes above $750,000 per year ineligible for the most generous insurance subsidies, he and other conferees have been officially instructed to support it in negotiations with the Senate, whose farm bill included the same provision. Regardless, the crop insurance program as a whole is likely to expand, as both chambers agree on the general shape of the program despite its well-documented propensity to enrich Wall Street and its relatively high vulnerability to fraud and abuse.

Price supports are another matter. Rep. Jim McGovern (MA) and fellow House Agriculture Committee Democrats decried the price support levels in the House bill as overgenerous. The same bill which would cut food assistance to the poor by billions would also lock in profits for specialty rice growers and other farm owners. The Senate bill sets lower price supports, and establishing consensus on those price levels will be key to the conference committee’s success.

It’s not clear whether or not farm policy and food policy will remain linked. The House nutrition bill is only written to last three years, while its agriculture bill is written to last five years. While the House re-merged the two bills in order to go to conference, the differing timelines will have to be resolved if the traditional coupling of farm and food policy is to continue. Splitting the two exposes the programs that benefit the poor to serious risks in the future, experts told ThinkProgress.

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