Path ahead is unclear for food stamp funding

July 12, 2013

The lead Democratic architect of the Senate farm bill on Friday faulted conservative Republicans for casting doubt on the future of federal farm and food aid policy as House GOP leaders left Washington for the weekend with no immediate plans to take up legislation addressing food stamp money.

House Republicans narrowly approved a modified farm bill this week that stripped out provisions regarding federal food stamps and nutrition programs.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee who shepherded a bipartisan proposal through the Senate last month, said the House vote had created a “a very frustrating, and frankly confusing situation.”

“When you’ve got 16 million people working on agriculture in this country, it’s the biggest jobs bill we’ll have in front of us this year. So many people who’ve been uncooperative here actually represent agricultural areas, so I have no idea what they’re doing,” Stabenow said in an interview Friday.

Stabenow said Senate Democrats would not back a farm bill that did not include food stamp funding. But she said she expects to be able to cut a deal with the House on its version of the bill before current policy expires Sept. 30.

Map: Americans on food stamps.

Her counterpart on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.), said after Thursday’s vote that he hoped to begin work on a new food stamp bill in the coming days. But when pressed for details, Lucas said he didn’t yet know what such a bill would say or when he would introduce it.

Aides to House Republican leaders said Friday that the topic of how to proceed would be taken up next week.

More than 46.5 million people received food stamps in 2012 — a number that had surged in recent years due to the recession. The average benefit is about $133.41 per month, meaning that attempts to curtail funding could have ripple effects on the overall U.S. economy.

Many aspects of the food stamp program, including eligibility rules, are written into permanent law, but funding still needs to be approved either through a farm bill or congressional appropriations bills.

The House and Senate could try in the coming weeks to reconcile the differences in their two versions of the bill and pass a final version that includes food stamp money. In the next decade, the Senate’s bill would cost $955 billion, while the House version, before the food stamp money was stripped away, would cost $940 billion. Without the nutrition funding, the House bill comes in at $195 billion in the next 10 years.

If there is compromise, any reconciled bill would still need to pass the House again, and conservatives there do not want to vote for the Senate’s food stamp formula, which would cut spending by just $3.9 billion in the next 10 years.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) declined to say this week whether he would require that the bill be able to attract majority Republican support for him to allow a vote.

In a week that also exposed deep partisan differences over immigration reform and how the Senate should approve Cabinet and judicial nominees, House lawmakers seemed nonplused over the prospects of another protracted fight over yet another spending issue.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who represents a Baltimore district, said that he was “appalled” when he heard that the farm bill had been split in two. He called the move “one of the lowest moments in my 17 years here.”

“To me, it was an effort to placate the most conservative elements of the Republican party. . . . I did not come here to throw people who need food under the bus,” Cummings said.

Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), who voted for the modified farm bill, called splitting apart the bill “risky” because the program “is a permanent law and if it goes on without reforms, then we may end up not having reforms in the program, which would not be a good thing.”

Brad Plumer and Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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