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House progresses on farm bill

As bitterly divided over food stamp spending as a year ago, the House Agriculture Committee worked halfway through its 576-page farm bill by midafternoon Wednesday. It approved commodity programs that put more emphasis on target prices than the Senate's version, and it agreed to trim spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, by $20.5 billion over the next decade, almost four times the Senate's cut to nutrition spending.

When he opened the markup session, committee chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) pointed out that the bill, which is called the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 (FARRM) reforms farm programs and saves another $23 billion. Like the Senate bill, FARRM ends the direct payment program.

"This cut is made while still providing producers a new kind of safety net that allows them risk management choices. I’ve said many times that policy must work for all commodities in all regions," Lucas said. "While I personally do not favor a revenue-style program, it is in the FARRM Act as a choice for producers because some of them believe they can manage their risk better with it."

The ranking Democrat, Representative Collin Peterson (R-MN), said he's more optimistic than a year ago that the committee's bill will come up for a vote on the floor the the House.

"One of the reasons I'm optimistic is that the Speaker of the House has started to lobby people on the dairy program. That tells me he is serious," said Peterson, referring to Representative John Boehner (R-OH). Last year, Boehner called a new dairy program championed by Peterson a "Soviet-style" supply management system.

The force of such lobbying showed early in the debate, when the committee's former chairman, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), offered an amendment to substitute a USDA-supported margin insurance for a market stabilization bill that Peterson spent four years brokering between dairy interests. Goodlatte's insurance would make payments whenever the difference between feed and milk costs falls below the margin farmers would insure. They could buy coverage for a margin between $4 and $8 per hundredweight in 50-cent increments. But it would not have the supply management component of Peterson's program, which requires dairy farmers in the voluntary program to reduce milk production during periods of low prices and oversupply.

Goodlatte said Peterson's program attempts to manage the milk supply at a time when USDA no longer manages supply of other commodities. And it would create a regulatory burden for milk processors.

"We all agree on the need to reform and improve dairy policies and our amendment would do just that," said Goodlatte.

He was joined by Democrat David Scott of Georgia, who argued that Peterson's dairy program has the potential to add 50 cents a gallon to the price of milk for the poor, as well as adding to the costs of federal nutrition programs.

But Peterson said that existing dairy programs didn't work for farmers when milk prices collapsed in 2009.

If the milk supply increases too much, it could bring disastrous consequences again, he said.

"A 2% oversupply will collapse the system," Peterson said.

If prices fall sharply again, "we're going to loose 25% of the dairy farmers in this country because there is no margin left," Peterson said.

Lucas backed Peterson. "Remember, dairy has never been an easy issue," he told the committee's new members. Regional differences and differences in the size of dairy farms makes writing a dairy program difficult, he added. Crafting a farm bill is like putting together a giant puzzle, he said, and that piece will be needed to get a farm bill passed.

Lucas and Peterson prevailed, with the committee narrowly defeating Goodlatte's alternative by a vote of 26 to 20.

The vote on dairy policy was the biggest split on the commodity title of the farm bill.

Representative Bob Gibbs (R-OH) objected to one aspect of the new Farm Risk Management Election, a target price program that pays on planted acres. Gibbs had an amendment that would have made payments on base acres instead. That approach is favored by the American Soybean Association and National Corn Growers Association, he said.

I firmly believe it is not the government's job to insure profits," said Gibbs, who withdrew his amendment. The farm bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee Tuesday does tie its target price program to base acres. It's one difference that will have to be worked out in a conference committee between Senate and House ag committee members later this year, if the House and Senate both pass a version of the farm bill.

Another more contentious issue will be food stamps.

Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) offered an amendment to withdraw the committee's cuts to its nutrition title.

"If this stands, 2 million people will be cut from the SNAP program," he said.

McGovern and other Democrats on the committee argued passionately that the cuts will affect veterans, senior citizens on fixed incomes, school children, and people with jobs who are still poor.

"This is a program to provide food to people. This is not a get-rich scheme," he said. "We ought to be about fixing a problem, not making it worse."

Representative Steve King (R-IA), said he appreciated McGovern's point of view, but "I see this from a different perspective."

King said it appears that a goal of the Obama Administration has been to get more people on the food stamp program (SNAP) and to "expand the dependency class."

The $20.5 billion cut in SNAP in the committee's draft bill amounts to a trim in SNAP spending of about 2.5%, King said.

"This is a touchy subject for all of us," said Reid Ribble (R-WI), who said he cares about hunger and poverty. "I think what gets missed in the debate here often is the real numbers and the facts."

Ribble said that during the recession and slow recovery, poverty has increased by 16%, but SNAP spending is up by more than 100%.

While some members used numbers, others spoke passionately about the poor.

"This is the basic issue for me in this farm bill," said Democrat Juan Vargas of California.

Vargas said he's a follower of Jesus and he cited the Bible's book of Matthew which has Jesus telling his followers, "How you treat the least of our brothers, that's how you treat me."

"I do look at it in dollars and cents, but I also look at it as something more basic, in the values of who we are as a nation," Vargas said.

Representative Mike Conaway said the changes in SNAP in the farm bill are aimed not at cutting individuals from the program, but the way that states game the system to qualify low-income Americans for food stamps.

Conaway said that he, too, is a follower of Christ but that he believes the book of Matthew speaks to him as an individual and not to the government.

McGovern's effort to restore the funding for SNAP was defeated by a vote of 17 to 27.

McGovern also offered a bill to require the fraud rate for crop insurance to be as low as that of SNAP. That, too, failed.

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