Uncertainty reigns in food stamp, farm bills

Friday, July 26, 2013

This story has been edited to correct that Rep. Jason Smith voted yes on an earlier House version of the farm bill.

After the U.S. House of Representatives passed a farm bill earlier this month, its new quest is to vote on a bill for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which was separated from the House's new farm bill for the first time in decades.

The farm bill passed the House along party lines, 216-208, and no Democrats voted for the bill that lacked food stamp funding. The bill awaits Senate consideration.

Rep. Jason Smith, a Republican representing Missouri 8th District, supported the House farm bill and is supportive of conferencing the House and Senate farm bills.

He said he'd like to see the commodity section and the food stamp section of the farm bill passed as separate issues. Smith, a Republican representing Missouri's 8th Congressional District, said people want a more open and transparent government, something he always has supported.

"Just holding separate votes on the agriculture portion and the food stamp portion is key in changing how Washington does business," he said.

Smith also wants certainty for families and farmers in Missouri, something he believes the farm bill will provide.

"The 8th Congressional District is the most diverse agricultural district outside California," Smith said. "The economy in rural communities absolutely depends on the farm bill."

Smith also voted for an earlier House version of the farm bill, which failed in the House last month.

Dr. Michael Aide, chairman for the Department of Agriculture at Southeast Missouri State University, said he thinks the agriculture and nutrition parts of the farm bill must be passed in its historical component and linked back together, as it allows agriculture to receive support from members of Congress whose congressional districts don't have a farm background.

"I think many farm groups support the idea of having the nutritional component and agricultural production component put back together," Aide said. "I believe that allows agriculture to get a great critical mass for advancing the political agenda for farm support."

Last year, crops were purchased from farmers for great prices but because of drought, farmers had less to sell, he said. This year, there may be a record yield, but farmers may not even break even financially.

"Farmers have always historically worked on a razor-edge margin," Aide said. "We have the tale of two seasons now."

Lack of compromise on a new farm bill last year and the potential of another extension this year could cause some economic distress for area farmers, their families and those who provide farmers their equipment. Last year, Congress couldn't come to terms on a new farm bill, with some wanting to reduce payments to farmers for what they see as corporate welfare, and others wanting heavy reductions in food stamp spending.

"Their livelihood is dependent on the farming, and if they get it wrong, we'll have a recession," Aide said.

Both the Senate- and House-passed versions contain large cuts to crop subsidies -- about $20 billion -- in a time of high commodity prices. The food-stamp program traditionally has made up 80 percent of spending in the farm bill. The Senate bill would have cut about $4.1 billion from food stamps during the next 10 years.

The farm bill's journey from the House to the president's desk remains far from certain.

Garrett Hawkins, director of national legislative programs for the Missouri Farm Bureau, works on federal farm policy issues on behalf of farmers in Missouri.

"We all share the same goal of finishing a farm bill sooner rather than later," Hawkins said. "We still have some work to do in terms of completing that process."

He said one of the challenges of passing the bill will be getting a final version of the bill from the conference committee that is acceptable to both the House and Senate. A majority in both chambers must approve a compromise bill before it advances to the president's desk for enactment.

But with the House having defeated the Senate bill, and the Senate unlikely to pass the House bill, finding consensus isn't looking likely.

Congress will be out for recess through the end of August, and the one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill expires Sept. 30.

Hawkins said major problems carried over to this year from Congress extending the farm bill last year.

"The longer that Congress lets the lapse continue, the more work that had to be done inside USDA in terms of reverting back to farm programs written in the 1930s and 1940s," he said.

Both farmers and citizens would benefit from agreement on a farm bill, Hawkins said.

"People would want to see a new farm bill done because it will save money, as opposed to continuing current law," he said.

From a farmer's perspective, if a farm bill passes, "improvements in federal crop insurance program, as well as new options in other aspects of the safety net, will be available," he said.

Commodity programs and the nutrition portion of the bills are two major differences between the House and Senate's separate farm bills. Most of the other parts of the bills are very similar, if not the same language, Hawkins said.

"The path forward is still uncertain, but at least we continue to move in the right direction," Hawkins said. "It's just figuring out how to get to the end point."



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