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Nutrition programs: cost or casualty?

DANIEL LOOKER 07/18/2011 @ 8:48pm Business Editor

In the white-knuckle showdown over raising the federal debt limit, House Republican opposition to tax increases gets a lot of press. But Democrats are just as nervous about potential cuts to favored programs.  And one of them, Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, is urging President Barrack Obama not to target food stamps in any cuts he accepts as part of a deal on spending.
 
“We got a commitment from the White House to restore these cuts but I’m not going to hold my breath,” McGovern told Agriculture.com in an interview last week.
 
Last month, the House cut the food stamp program by 12% from this year’s level when it passed an agricultural spending bill for 2012.
 
McGovern is among a large group of new members on the House Agriculture Committee, where many moderate, rural Democrats were defeated by the wave of fiscally conservative Republicans last November.
 
McGovern isn’t new to Congress. He was first elected in 1996. He co-chairs the bipartisan House Hunger Caucus and has been a long-time advocate for nutrition programs. And he’s certainly a liberal. He’s not related to former Senator George McGovern, but the two are friends and the Massachusetts congressman once worked for the senator.
 
In a letter he sent to President Obama last week, Representative McGovern said he was concerned about reports of possible cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (the new name for USDA’s food stamps program).
 
“Deficit reduction should not result in increased hunger and poverty and I believe that any proposal to reduce the deficit and balance the budget should incorporate the basic principle of improving our budget outlook while protecting our most vulnerable citizens from harm,” McGovern wrote.
 
Whether or not McGovern wins this battle, differences over spending on nutrition programs are likely to be part of tough negotiations over the next farm legislation.
 
When the Farm Bill was passed in 2008, SNAP and the rest of the bill’s nutrition title was expected to be 67% of projected spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Commodity programs for farmers accounted for 15%; conservation programs added another 9%.  As 2010 was winding down, spending on nutrition programs had ballooned to 80%, according to CBO. Commodity programs, too, were running ahead of projections but their share of USDA’s budget had fallen to 10%.
 
Other new members of the House Agriculture Committee, including freshman Representative Renee Ellmers (R-NC) look at nutrition’s big slice of the USDA pie and wonder if it can be trimmed.
 
“One of the issues I have with the farm program is the large percentage we’re spending on the SNAP program,” Ellmers told Agriculture.com in an interview last week.

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