WASHINGTON — The House Agriculture Committee on Thursday unveiled its approach for a long-term farm and food bill that would reduce spending by $3.5 billion a year, almost half of that coming from cuts in the federal food stamp program.
The legislative draft envisions reducing current food stamp spending projections by $1.6 billion a year, four times the amount of cuts incorporated in the five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm bill passed by the Senate last month.
Food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, look to be the most contentious issue when the Agriculture Committee begins voting on the bill Wednesday and when the full House begins debating it in the future.
Conservatives in the Republican-led House are certain to demand greater cuts in the food stamps program, which makes up about 80 percent of the nearly $100 billion a year in spending under the farm bill. Senate Democrats are equally certain to resist more cuts in a program that now helps feed 46 million people, one of every seven Americans.
"Underfunding this critically important program when families temporarily rely on it to put food on the table in a tough economy is irresponsible and inhumane," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a food stamp advocate in the House. The Agriculture Committee said its bill would enhance the program's integrity while better targeting assistance to those in need.
The House proposal, like the Senate measure that passed on a bipartisan 64-35 vote, also does away with the much-criticized direct payment system whereby farmers get federal assistance even when they don't plant a crop. Both put greater emphasis on crop insurance for natural disasters and falling prices.
The two chambers are in a race to reach a compromise before Sept. 30, when the current farm bill expires.
House GOP leaders have shown little enthusiasm for taking up the farm bill because of resistance from conservatives to the bill's price, but the Agriculture Committee's chairman, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and top Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, stressed its importance.
Lucas said the bill, the result of two years' work, "is reform-minded, fiscally responsible policy that is equitable for farmers and ranchers in all regions." Peterson said that by failing to act before the September deadline, "We jeopardize one of the economic bright spots of our nation's fragile economy."
The bills, in addition to setting commodity support and nutrition policy, also authorize conservation, trade, foreign food aid, rural development, forestry and energy programs.