House panel begins voting on 5-year farm bill

Rep. Frank Lucas said that cuts to the food stamp program would ensure that benefits go to those who need the assistance. Rep. Frank Lucas said that cuts to the food stamp program would ensure that benefits go to those who need the assistance. (AP) — The House Agriculture Committee encountered an ideological rift Wednesday over the federal food stamp program as it began voting on a half-trillion-dollar farm policy and food assistance bill.

The panel was caught between Republicans, clamoring for cuts to a program that has doubled in costs over the past four years, and Democrats who contend any cuts to the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program will result in people going hungry.

The panel was expected to work deep into Wednesday and possibly into Thursday to consider dozens of amendments. In early votes, the committee rejected amendments affecting the sugar and dairy industries.

The Senate passed its version of the five-year farm bill on a bipartisan vote last month. The future is less certain in the House, where GOP leaders have not committed to bringing the legislation to the floor once it emerges from the Agriculture Committee. With conservatives balking at the price of the bill and Democrats unhappy with prospective food stamp cuts, House passage could be difficult.

The committee draft would save $3.5 billion a year from current spending levels through such steps as ending the practice of direct payments for non-active farmers and consolidating conservation programs. Some 45 percent of the cost savings would be from trimming funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, which comprise almost 80 percent of the $100 billion-a-year cost of the bill.

The Senate-passed bill would save about $2.3 billion a year, with $400 million coming from ending what the bill writers said were abuses of the food stamp program, known as SNAP.

The House bill also differs from its Senate counterpart by preserving a price support program that pays farmers when prices fall below certain levels. The target price system is favored by Southern rice and peanut farmers, who objected to the elimination of price supports in the Senate bill.

The House measure gives farmers a choice between the price support program and a taxpayer-paid revenue protection program included in the Senate bill bill that compensates farmers for modest revenue losses before crop insurance kicks in.

The current farm bill expires at the end of September, and failure to reach a compromise by then would prompt passage of a short-term extension that farm groups say could make it more difficult for farmers to plan for the future.

Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., stressed that the cuts to the food stamp program would improve its integrity and ensure that benefits go to those who need the assistance. "I believe most Americans will agree that a 2 percent cut in food stamps is reasonable," he said.

But Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, said at a rally with food groups Tuesday that any cuts to the program that provides assistance to some 46 million Americans were an "abomination."

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said at the same event that if the measure reaches the floor in its current form "we are going to do everything in our power to defeat this bill."

The committee defeated, by 36-10, an amendment by Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., that would have brought changes to the federal sugar policy that for eight decades has protected beet and sugarcane growers and sugar refiners by controlling prices and limiting imports. Goodlatte argued that government supports drove up prices, forced food companies to move overseas and cost jobs. The amendment was pushed by beverage companies, confectioners and consumer groups.

But supporters of the current sugar policy said it did not cost the government anything and protected producers from a surge in Mexican or Brazilian imports. Similar efforts in the Senate to repeal or reduce the scope of current sugar policy failed.

The House panel also rejected, by 29-17, another amendment by Goodlatte and Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., that would have removed a requirement for dairy farmers participating in a new voluntary risk management program to also agree to be subject to supply management controls where they would have to cut production when surpluses drive down prices.