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Nutrition programs: cost or casualty?

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 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 in an interview last week.
Ellmers hopes that the efficiency of the SNAP program can be improved.
Does she expect it to be cut?
“It’s on the table,” she said. “There’s a definite possibility.”
Much of the growth in SNAP comes from the recession. Last year, according to USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), participation was growing by about 20,000 people a day. The program helped feed one in eight Americans and a fourth of the nation’s children. SNAP payments, based on income, top out at $200 a month. The average benefit is about $125 a month.
OIG investigates fraud, mainly by retailers who cheat USDA out of food snap reimbursements, and by the state employees who administer the program. From the federal government’s 2008 fiscal year through the first half of 2010, OIG got 472 convictions and monetary results of $77 million. It’s up to the states to catch cheating by food stamp recipients, but USDA reports any cases it finds to the states. Since the welfare reform legislation of 1996, USDA has also watched for fugitive felons who illegally apply for food stamps. That net has swept up some 15,000 arrests.
Overall, though, McGovern argues that the SNAP program is very efficient. The Government Accountability Office has found the error rates for SNAP to be at record low of 4.36%. And McGovern says most of that error is from USDA underpaying recipients who qualify for higher SNAP benefits.
Traditionally, farm bills have been cobbled together by coalitions of urban members of Congress who support nutrition programs and rural representatives and senators who back commodity and conservation programs.
Without that, USDA might not even exist in today’s increasingly urban nation. Calls for eliminating the Department go back at least to the era of President Richard Nixon.
“We can’t get a farm bill done that has adequate funding if we don’t have the support of the food groups and some of the urban members of Congress,” said Jon Doggett, the top Washington lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association.
But Doggett said he also senses a big change in how Congress views programs that have been around for decades.  And, like other farm group representatives in the nation’s capital, he sees the results of the current negotiations locked behind closed doors.
When Vice President Joe Biden was leading the debt reduction talks, a plan to cut the $5 billion-a-year direct payment program was reported.
“What surprised me is how little of that has leaked out,” Doggett said of the Biden talks.
Doggett’s group has been urging members of Congress to allow any cuts in agricultural spending to be written into the farm bill instead the debt ceiling deal. That would buy at least another year’s time to wrestle with the details.
McGovern, who has little power beyond persuasion as a minority member of the House, is hoping that the Senate’s version of a farm bill will be more generous toward nutrition programs.
“I think there are some members of Congress who think there’s no political consequence to cutting these programs,” he said. “We’re the richest country in the world and we have a hunger problem. We should be ashamed about that.”  

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