When House lawmakers take to the floor this week to address a bill that will set funding levels for the food-stamp program, they will be finishing a fight that has torn the traditional five-year farm bill in two. Literally.
Earlier this year, House Republicans split the farm bill into two pieces of legislation, one to handle agriculture policy and the other to address the food-stamp program. The agriculture piece was approved. But the food-stamp measure has become a focal point as Republicans, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., attempt to make cuts to the program that go far beyond what the House Agriculture Committee approved.
Whether reducing the program by tens of billions winds up being little more than political messaging — a way to pacify House GOP hard-liners — or a catalyst for substantive change to the food-stamp program will be determined in the next few days. An existing farm-bill extension expires Sept. 30, and a final product still must be hashed out with the Democratic-controlled Senate.
At stake is federal assistance that is designed to battle hunger for millions of Americans, although views differ on exactly how many could be impacted and how much need exists.
More than 47 million Americans — one in seven — benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated in a report that the House Republican plan would eliminate food assistance for 4 million to 6 million people. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 2.8 million people would lose out.
Overall, CBO says the House Republican bill would reduce spending on food stamps by about $39 billion over 10 years. By contrast, the Senate's already-passed farm bill calls for cutting the program by about $4 billion.
If the House version passes, there's a battle ahead with Senate Democrats over how much to cut the program. "Debbie Stabenow will not support cuts at that level," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., referring to the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Hoyer characterized the GOP measure as another example of an extremist bill going nowhere.
Criticism also comes from influential voices outside Congress. In a joint Los Angeles Times op-ed Monday, two former Senate majority leaders — Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Tom Daschle — noted that farm bills have enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. "In a country struggling to emerge from the worst economic recession since the Depression, this is no time to play politics with hunger," the pair wrote. "As friends and colleagues, we hope that the House will do the right thing and follow the Senate's lead in passing a farm bill with adequate funding for food assistance. Our nation's future depends on it."
In fact, the battle in the House just to get to this point has underscored the sharp political and ideological divisions over the decades-old practice of pairing agriculture policy with a key social safety-net program, and what may or may not be needed to reform food stamps.
A version of the farm bill advanced earlier this year with bipartisan support in the Agriculture Committee under the leadership of Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn. But that bill, which proposed cuts of $20.5 billion to food stamps, was unexpectedly defeated in a floor vote in June.
Many conservatives at the time complained that the plan passed by the panel did not cut deep enough — 62 Republicans voted against it — while many Democrats said those cuts would go too far.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House GOP leaders, seeking to avoid the embarrassment of not having passed any version of a farm bill, responded by stripping the nutritional-programs section from the House bill altogether, and were able to gain passage of an agriculture-programs-only measure. The cost of that trimmed-down bill is about $196 billion, only 20 percent of the farm bill's nearly $1 trillion total price tag when the food-stamp portion is included.
Afterward, Cantor and other leaders held fast to a commitment that the House would have to vote on completing the bill before any negotiations would commence with the Senate on a final version.
And so, the challenge for House Republican leaders became how to get the unfinished nutrition section passed on the floor. Concluding that a solution would mean having to satisfy House conservatives, a Republican working group led by Cantor decided to revise the bill by doubling the food-stamp cuts, adding in new work requirements, and making other changes to eliminate fraud and waste.
Some conservatives have complained that loopholes have allowed people to enroll in the food-stamp program even though their income exceeds the normal thresholds, noting that the number of able-bodied adults under the age of 50 without children enrolled grew by 163.7 percent from 2007 to 2011.
"No law-abiding beneficiary who meets the income and asset test of the current program and is willing to comply with applicable work requirements will lose their benefits under the bill," Cantor said on the House floor, describing some of the changes.
But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in its report about the Republican plan that "proponents have mischaracterized some of the proposal's provisions as 'work requirements.' ... In reality, they would terminate basic food assistance to people who would take any job or job training opportunity offered but cannot find one."
Meanwhile, Stabenow has said that time is running out for the House and Senate to reach a final version.
Another aim of some conservatives — to permanently split off food stamps from the farm bill — appears unlikely to happen in this go-round.
Tying the two together is a precedent dating from 1973, on the theory that lawmakers representing rural districts would vote for agriculture programs while lawmakers from urban and suburban districts would support nutrition programs. It is a marriage that some hunger and social-service groups say is important and continues to work. But conservatives respond that this balance makes it too politically difficult to pass needed changes.
Even so, conservatives indicate they are satisfied for now with the rewritten House language — including those who have been insisting that splitting the farm bill is a critical step in reforming agriculture and food-stamp policy.
"While we still have a long way to go in reforming both food-stamp and farm programs, this is a victory for those who believe that we should measure success by the number of families who get back on their feet, not by how much government increases spending year after year," said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., in a statement Monday.
With House Republican leaders focused on satisfying conservatives, there are now questions about whether House GOP moderates, many of whom represent districts in or close to urban areas, will back the bill, given the deeper cuts. Their salvation may come in simply agreeing to advance the bill, with the expectation that the Senate will insist on lower reductions.
For most Democrats, there is no question. They point out that people who currently receive food stamps are already set to see their benefits reduced in November.
That's because the 2009 Recovery Act's temporary boost, enacted by a Democratic Congress, is scheduled to end. For families of three, the cut will be $29 from a monthly benefit of about $526. It seems unlikely Congress will do anything to prevent this, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Lawmakers like Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., also point to a new Agriculture Department report showing that 14.5 percent of American households remain "food insecure," meaning they had difficulty at some time over the past year providing enough food.
"This is no way for the wealthiest country in the world to behave," DeLauro said.