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Policy Focus: Limited Time Left

Deals start to emerge as Congress works to pass a budget and a farm bill before the end of the year

December 2013

Congress has only a few days left before it's scheduled to adjourn for the holidays. In the remaining days, lawmakers are working hard to finish the farm bill and reach a budget agreement that addresses some of the sequester. How Congress resolves these issues will have huge implications for hunger and poverty for years to come. While the House isn’t expected to vote on immigration reform before the end of the year, major actions continue, and we hope there will be movement in early 2014.

Farm Bill, SNAP, and Food Aid

Negotiations on a farm bill continue. While negotiators are struggling to agree on a proposal, a deal is expected to emerge any day, but time is running short. The House and Senate are in session simultaneously for only one week in December.

The nutrition title — the SNAP (food stamps) provisions — remains one of the most controversial points. The Senate bill cut $4 billion from SNAP over 10 years, while the House’s version cut $39 billion. Any cuts to SNAP would make it more difficult for struggling families to put food on the table. Deep SNAP cuts, such as those proposed in the House-passed farm bill, could leave millions of people without food. Some provisions create incentives for states to kick people off the program, and other provisions eliminate food stamps for people who cannot find work in a tough economy or who are unable to get into a job-training program. Bread for the World has been pushing hard against further cuts to SNAP. On Nov. 1, all SNAP recipients saw a cut in their benefits, which translates into about 10 million meals total nationwide eliminated each day. Those cuts this year total more than all the food assistance provided by all the charities and churches nationwide combined.

The farm bill conferees will also negotiate agricultural provisions, including food-aid reform. The Senate passed provisions in its farm bill for more effective and efficient food-aid policy that would allow U.S. food aid to reach more hungry people with better, more nutritious food. While an amendment to include similar provisions in the House version failed to pass, a bipartisan letter signed by 53 members of the House was sent to farm bill conferees supporting Senate-passed provisions in the bill. Bread continues to push conferees to include the Senate provisions.

Whatever emerges from any potential farm bill agreement, Bread for the World members will have to push hard to oppose harmful cuts or policy changes during a conference committee mark-up that could seriously undermine SNAP's effectiveness. This includes harsher time limits for unemployed adults to be on SNAP, even when the economy is bad and jobs are scarce. Any effort to split the SNAP provisions from the rest of the farm bill (by authorizing SNAP for only three years rather than five) must be opposed forcefully as well. Watch Bread's website for the latest up-to-date information on the farm bill.

Budget and Sequestration

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairmen of the budget committees in their respective chambers, are moving closer to negotiating a budget agreement, which could emerge any day. These two congressional leaders have set their sights on a smaller deal that would resolve only top-line funding levels for one or two years with some sequestration replacement for a year or two. Reports indicate that such a deal would include a mix of small, mandatory spending cuts and increased fees.

Some members have been pushing to include an extension of emergency unemployment benefits in the budget deal. Federal emergency unemployment benefits allow unemployed workers to continue receiving unemployment insurance for up to 47 more weeks (in states with very high unemployment) after they have exhausted their 26 weeks of state benefits. Federal emergency benefits are set to expire Dec. 31, which could leave more than 2 million individuals without unemployment by the end of March.

Even if a deal emerges, it still needs to pass Congress, which is no small task these days. If Congress does pass a budget agreement that sets the top-line spending levels, we will need to continue our work ensuring that Congress adequately funds domestic and international anti-hunger programs during the appropriations process and that over the longer term replaces sequestration with a balanced plan.

The budget conference committee is tasked with reaching a budget deal by Dec. 13, and Congress must pass a budget by Jan. 15, 2014, to avoid another government shutdown.

International Poverty-Focused Development Assistance

Just before Thanksgiving, S. 1545, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Stewardship and Oversight Act of 2013 was passed by Congress and signed into law. Enactment of this measure demonstrates Congress' bipartisan support and continued commitment to combating HIV and AIDS. Passage of this legislation is timely as a replenishment conference for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis was held in Washington, D.C., last week. On Dec. 1, World Aids Day, President Obama pledged $5 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and in total donors committed $12 billion, a 30 percent increase over initial pledges made in 2010. Both the passage of S. 1545 and the president's $5 billion commitment helped to garner robust funding commitments from other donor nations.

Immigration Reform

Bread and its partners are working to push the House to put a vote on immigration reform on the calendar. The Evangelical Immigration Table, of which Bread is a member, recently released a letter urging the House to continue working on immigration and to take up reform that includes a pathway to legalization or citizenship for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Bread is participating in and supporting the Fast for Families, a movement of faith, immigrant rights, and labor leaders and will be hosting evening prayers at the tent on Wednesday, Dec. 11. President Obama and the First Lady met informally with immigration activists on the National Mall on Nov. 29. They visited individuals taking part in the Fast for Families to “offer their support for those who are fasting on behalf of immigration reform.” The activists have been fasting since Nov. 12, abstaining from all food except water and “are calling for the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives to take up action on comprehensive immigration reform,” a White House official said. The Obamas were joined by 18 people who are fasting for one day and two who have been fasting for 18 days, the official said. According to the White House, others who have visited Fast for Families in recent weeks are Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz, and Senior Adviser to the president Valerie Jarrett.

Photo: DeEtte Peck uses her EBT card in Portland, Ore., to purchase food. (Brian Duss)

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