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Republicans Eye Splitting Farms, Food Stamps for Measure

By Derek Wallbank & Alan Bjerga on July 28, 2013
© Bloomberg

Republican leaders in the U.S. House are exploring divorcing farm subsidies from food stamps to revive an agriculture bill, breaking up a political alliance that for decades expanded spending on farmers and hungry families.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, is considering the possibility of advancing a slimmer, farm-only plan that can win enough Republican votes to pass, according to a party aide who spoke yesterday on condition of anonymity. A bill without food stamps wouldn’t need support from Democrats, who have championed the nutrition program for more than three decades and joined Republicans to defeat the bill last week.

“Farm policy and food-stamp policy are different,” said Representative Marlin Stutzman, an Indiana Republican who has proposed separate amendments that would remove nutrition programs from the farm bill. “We have an opportunity to make common-sense reforms by splitting the bill into a real, farm-only farm bill and having an honest conversation about how Washington spends taxpayer money.”

The farm legislation, which benefits crop-buyers such as Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. (ADM), grocers including Supervalu Inc. (SVU) and insurers including Wells Fargo & Co., has been working through Congress for almost two years. The Senate on June 10 passed a plan that would cost $955 billion over a decade. Current legislation begins to expire Sept. 30.

Bill Defeated

The House, which refused to take up the Senate bill last year, voted down a $939 billion re-authorization of U.S. Department of Agriculture programs on a 195-234 vote on June 20. Democrats opposed a 2.5 percent cut in food-stamp spending and an amendment backed by Cantor that would have let states set work requirements for recipients, while more than one-quarter of the Republicans deserted their leadership over objections to its cost.

Food assistance has been part of farm legislation since 1977, when Jimmy Carter was president, marrying the interests of urban and rural lawmakers. Since then, the number of participants in what’s officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has more than doubled to more than 47 million from 17 million, while the ranks of rural lawmakers has declined, making them more dependent on representatives of urban districts with needy constituents to back farm subsidies.

Fresh Scrutiny

Mounting federal debt has brought fresh scrutiny to both types of aid, as agriculture profits are projected to reach a record $128.2 billion this year and food-stamp costs more than doubled from 2008 to $78.4 billion last year. The House Republican Study Committee, the party’s largest caucus, has pushed leaders to treat the issues separately, as has a coalition of small-government groups that consider food-assistance and crop-subsidy spending wasteful.

“We are encouraged to hear reports that House Republican leaders are actively considering the separation of the so-called farm bill,” said Michael Needham, chief executive officer of Heritage Action, an advocacy organization tied to the Heritage Foundation, led by former South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint, in a statement yesterday. “This is an important first step to restoring fiscal sanity and transparency to this debate.”

Considering food stamps separately from farm subsidies presents a quandary to supporters of funding for either, said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Washington-based organization that fights hunger.

Bill Alliance

The two constituencies may not agree on each issue -- Bread for the World opposed the House bill because of cuts to food stamps and subsidies for wealthy farmers, Beckmann said. Still, as an alliance the groups are able to get the programs through Congress. Without each other, both groups become more vulnerable to spending reductions, he said.

“Historically, when the nutrition interests and the farm interests get together, then we’ve been able to get increases,” he said. “I’m concerned for both hungry people and for farm policy. I’m interested in the production of healthy food, and that’s a reason to keep them together.”

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters yesterday no path has been set on how to reconsider farm and food legislation. “There’s a lot of conversations going on about the farm bill and a way forward,” he said. “There have been no decisions.”

Farmer groups are seeking to salvage a plan, either by largely sticking with the proposal defeated by the House or by crafting a compromise to gain a majority of votes.

“When you’re cutting money instead of adding money, it’s a lot harder to keep a coalition together,” said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, the second-biggest U.S. farmer group, in an interview. “Eventually, it’s going to sink in that we have to get something done. We’re trying to do what we can to communicate that to leadership.”

The Senate has passed a bill that would change farm-subsidy programs and reauthorize the food-stamp program, though with eligibility restrictions. Senate Agriculture Chairman Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, has said a farm bill without food stamps is a non-starter in her chamber.

The House bill is H.R. 1947; the Senate bill is S. 954.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Bjerga in Washington at abjerga@bloomberg.net

Derek Wallbank in Washington at dwallbank@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net

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