The House Agriculture Committee endorsed a letter this week to Budget Chairman Paul Ryan arguing that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps low-income Americans purchase food, would make a better target for cuts than automatic subsidies to farms.
The move comes as food prices are rising -- the Department of Agriculture expects overall food prices to rise 3 percent to 4 percent this year -- making it harder for the beneficiaries of SNAP to stretch their existing benefits, even as farmers profit from the tightening market. Critics across the political spectrum have called agricultural subsidies wasteful and unnecessary, and they question the logic of maintaining them as lawmakers hunt for budget cuts.
"Conspicuously missing from the list of mandatory spending cuts the Agriculture Committee has made or is proposing to make are commodity subsidies, and specifically the $4.9 billion in direct payments that are automatically paid out each year regardless of whether a person farms,” said Jake Caldwell, the director of agricultural policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “It is shortsighted of the Committee to suggest cuts to SNAP, particularly as food prices are on the rise, Americans are spending more than 10 percent of their household budget on food, and more people are enrolled in the food stamp program than ever before."
President Obama has endorsed cuts in agricultural subsidies as a way to lower the deficit without targeting essential programs, and lawmakers from both parties, like Ryan, R-Wis., have expressed similar opinions.
But the Agriculture Committee is dominated by members of Congress from farm states; Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has reported $445,714 in political contributions from the agricultural industry during the course of his career, and ranking Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota reports $809,097 in career donations.
The budget letter, endorsed by both Lucas and Peterson, argues that subsidies need to be in place for when record-high prices “inevitably” fall, and that higher prices have actually increased risks for farmers. But not even all farmers agree -- the Iowa Farm Bureau voted its opposition to direct payment subsidies earlier this year. Brian Riedl, a fiscal policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that most large commercial farmers report an average annual income of $200,000, well in excess of the national average.
A Republican aide says the letters’ main message was a request that the agriculture committee be allowed to review its programs before final budget decisions are made, and that the programs under the committee’s jurisdiction not be cut disproportionately. Criteria for program reviews have yet to be determined.
The letter emphasizes recent reductions in the committee’s budget due to renegotiated insurance deals and higher food prices, which have reduced or temporarily eliminated the cost of some conditional subsidies. But it argues that SNAP -- which grew more expensive during the recession as unemployment increased the number of people who were eligible and as Congress expanded benefits under the economic stimulus law -- could be a target for cuts. SNAP makes up the bulk of the USDA’s budget.
Democrats stripped out some of the program’s expanded funding last year to pay for other programs, including child nutrition legislation. Now, the committee says, it will review the remaining stimulus expansions, which expire in November 2013, to see if the funds can be diverted for deficit reduction.
Democrats and Republicans are split on the value of the SNAP expansions, with the president and his party generally endorsing higher levels of spending than the GOP, which worries about a too-comfortable safety net (the program provides a monthly benefit of about $200 a person to households at or below 130 percent of the poverty level).
Anti-hunger advocates say the move to reduce food aid comes at just the wrong time. The Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy group, reported earlier this month that almost 1 in 5 Americans struggled to afford food for their families in 2010, with some of the highest rates of food hardship occurring just last fall.