May 21, 2018
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House farm bill’s food-stamp cuts raise alarms

By Alan Bjerga, Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — A House Agriculture Committee plan to push cuts in farm spending beyond levels the Senate approved relies mostly on reductions in food stamps, alarming nutrition activists.

Of $35.1 billion that would be saved over a decade under the draft plan released Thursday, about $16.1 billion would come from food stamps, while growers of corn, cotton and other crops would see subsidies reduced by about $14.1 billion, according to congressional estimates. The cuts in nutrition assistance would be about four times more than those included in legislation the Senate passed last month and about half the size of an earlier House plan that would have dropped 1.8 million people from assistance rolls.

“It’s pretty disturbing — these are needy people” being targeted, said Ellen Vollinger, food-stamp lobbyist with the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based anti-hunger advocacy group. “They’re living at or near poverty, and there doesn’t seem to be a connection to that reality.”

About 46.2 million people — more than one in seven Americans — received food-stamps in April, the last month for which statistics are available. That was down 0.7 percent from the record in December. Funding for the program reached a record $75.7 billion last year, double the level of four years earlier. This expenditure plus record farm profits are making the agriculture bill — a five-year reauthorization of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs — a target for budget cutters.

Under the House proposal, which will be considered by the agriculture committee July 11, subsidies would fall by about $14 billion over 10 years, or $1 billion less than the Senate plan. That legislation calls for a total of $23.6 billion in savings across all programs.

The House plan, which cuts farm subsidies and crop insurance by 9.2 percent and food stamps by 2 percent, is “reform-minded, fiscally responsible policy that is equitable for farmers and ranchers in all regions,” Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said in an emailed statement.

The bill largely follows the Senate approach to farm subsidies, cutting spending mostly by ending direct payments to growers, which are allotted regardless of commodity prices. It also creates a so-called shallow-loss program that guarantees revenues.

Unlike the Senate bill, the House plan would let farmers continue to rely on payments based on crop prices, an approach favored by producers of southern products such as peanuts. While the National Corn Growers Association, which represents producers of the biggest U.S. crop, said yesterday it was studying the proposal, the National Cotton Council quickly endorsed the plan.

“We are pleased that the range of programs provides choices that offer a balanced safety net across commodities and regions, yet still allowing market-driven planting,” said Chuck Coley, chairman of the Memphis, Tenn.-based producer and merchant group.

The food-stamp provisions drew criticism from the Environmental Working Group, which advocates for farm programs that benefit the environment and nutrition. Cuts to food assistance would be unnecessary if spending on subsidies and crop insurance, which receives a boost in the House plan, were reined in, said Scott Faber, a lobbyist for the Washington-based organization.

“We urge Congress to reject these proposed cuts to anti- hunger and conservation programs,” Faber said in a statement.

Lawmakers on the House and Senate farm panels are trying to get Congress to pass a new agriculture-policy law before current legislation expires on Sept. 30. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the House Agriculture Committee’s top Democrat, cited the deadline in a statement in support of the panel’s plan.

“Every government program must contribute toward deficit reduction, and while I would have found other ways to accomplish the bill’s nutrition savings, the bottom line is that, working together, we need to keep this farm bill moving forward,” Peterson said.

The proposal also lowers spending on programs that encourage soil and water conservation by about $6 billion over 10 years, largely by reducing acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program, as is done in the Senate bill. Research, rural development and overseas food-assistance programs would also be cut. The federal sugar program, which raises consumer prices by limiting supplies, is left unchanged from the current farm law, passed in 2008.

The law governs programs that feed needy families, improve air and soil quality, encourage rural development and provide a safety net for farmers who suffer crop or income loss. Production subsidies, which may reach $11 billion this year, aid agribusinesses such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill by lowering the costs of their raw materials.

With assistance from Derek Wallbank in Washington.

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