BLACKWELL, OKLA — The House debate over whether to authorize President Obama to take action in Syria will overshadow other legislative work this week, but Congress will finish a new farm bill before the end of the year, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., predicted at a town-hall meeting last week that also indicated constituents are more concerned about Syria and other issues.
With House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., planning to bring up a bill to cut $40 billion over 10 years from food stamps before proceeding to conference on the farm bill, Lucas started his town hall in this rural community of about 7,000 people in north-central Oklahoma last Thursday with a lengthy explanation about why Congress still hasn't finished the new bill.
Not enough of his Republican colleagues voted for a comprehensive bill in June, Lucas acknowledged, forcing the House leadership to bring up a farm-program-only bill that passed with only Republican votes in July. The plan now is to vote on a nutrition bill in September before appointing conferees to meet with their counterparts in the Senate. The Senate passed its own comprehensive bill in June.
"It shouldn't be this hard to pass a farm bill that makes sure we have food," Lucas said.
On Syria, Lucas told the approximately 50 attendees he had not taken an "absolute" position on authorizing military action, but that having been in Congress long enough to observe the involvements in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan it is hard for him to be "enthusiastic" about supporting U.S. military action if there is not a clear threat to the country.
Several constituents urged Lucas to vote no on the Syria bill, but only one man asked about the farm bill. Rick Jeans, a wheat, corn, and grain-sorghum farmer who sits on the executive board of the National Association of Conservation Districts, told Lucas that he had heard that a two-year extension of the farm bill is more likely than passage of a new bill.
"I have a hard time believing we will have a two-year extension or a one-year extension," Lucas said. "Both the majority and minority leadership see a blister they need lanced."
The nutrition issue, Lucas said, is a matter of how big a cut should be made to the food-stamp program. Ultimately that will be up to Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, he said. "If the crowd on high would agree, we could fill in the details in a matter of hours," Lucas said.
The really tough remaining hurdle, he said, is the difference between the Senate and House bills on the commodity title. The Senate bill "puts 95 percent of their eggs" in the basket of "shallow loss" payments for losses not covered by crop insurance, while the House bill offers payments based on higher target prices for all crops. "Shallow-loss crop revenue is wonderful if you are in the Midwest," Lucas said. "If you are not in the Midwest it is not so wonderful."¦ If [the farm bill] doesn't apply to all regions it is not a federal bill."
No one at the town hall asked about food stamps. Oklahoma has already passed a law that will achieve one of Cantor's goals. It forbids the state from asking for another waiver from a federal restriction that says able-bodied adults between 18 and 50 without dependents (known in nutrition circles as ABAWDs) should get food stamps for only three months in any three-year period.
Tom Short, the executive director of the food pantry in nearby Ponca City, recalled in an interview that when the ABAWDs were first restricted in the 1996 welfare-reform law, "there were more people coming in my door," and predicted that will happen again. Cook said that demand for his services doubled during the Great Recession and that he and his staff were too busy providing assistance to attend town halls.
Back in Washington, Cantor sent Republican House members a memo last week detailing the proposal to cut $40 billion from food stamps. The memo cited news reports that there are "surfers" living on food stamps as a reason for restricting states' ability to ask for waivers for the ABAWDs. But the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said in a report Friday that there are at least 900,000 veterans receiving food stamps and that the proposal could cut off food stamps for homeless veterans. The Cantor proposal would take 4 million to 6 million people off food stamps, the report said.
A House Democratic aide said that once Republican members realize the full impact of the food-stamp cuts under Cantor's proposal, the House GOP leaders may wish to fold the farm bill into a larger piece of legislation and not force members to vote on a measure that could increase hunger in their districts. "They will want to look like they make the steep cuts but want flexibility for members that may not want to cut as deeply," the aide predicted.
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.