WASHINGTON (AP) - 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.
Food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, look to be the most contentious issue when the Agriculture Committee begins voting on the bill Wednesday and when the full House begins debating it in the future.
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.
"Underfunding this critically important program when families temporarily rely on it to put food on the table in a tough economy is irresponsible and inhumane," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a food stamp advocate in the House. The Agriculture Committee said its bill would strengthen the program's integrity while better targeting assistance to those in need of it.
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.
The two chambers are in a race to reach a compromise before Sept. 30, when the current farm bill expires.
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, which is 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."
Sen. Debby Stabenow, D-Mich., the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the Senate bill "represents the most significant reform of American agriculture policy in decades" and that she was "very concerned" about some of the differences between the Senate and House legislation.
Stabenow cited the food stamp issue, saying the House bill "takes far greater cuts in food assistance by changing eligibility rules so that some people truly in need will not receive the help their family needs."
The legislation, 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 Senate derives its food stamp savings mainly by cracking down on fraud and on a practice of some states of giving households as little as $1 a year in heating assistance, even when they don't directly pay for heating, to make them eligible for increased food benefits. The House also stops this practice while restricting a system wherein states can provide food benefits to those whose assets exceed legal limits for food stamps as long as they receive some other welfare benefit. It ends Agriculture Department bonus payments to states that increase food stamp registrations.
The Congressional Budget Office, in its analysis of the Senate bill, estimated that the $4.5 billion saved over 10 years by curbing the heating assistance link to food stamps would result in nearly 500,000 households each year having their monthly food stamps reduced by an average of $90, nearly one-third of what they receive.
"America's children, seniors and 1.5 million veteran households facing a constant struggle against hunger deserve better from Congress," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who led Senate efforts to block food stamps cuts, said of the House bill.
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.