Lucas plans additional food stamp cuts in House farm bill
By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
WASHINGTON -- House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told Capital Press on April 26 that he is planning a farm bill that will cut $38 billion in spending over 10 years, with $20 billion coming from the food stamps account and $18 billion from the rest of the bill.
Those cuts would be $3 billion more than those included in a farm bill passed by the committee last year.
Lucas has scheduled a mark up of the bill on May 15. The proposed $38 billion cut would make it easier to get the bill through the Republican-controlled House, but the large food stamp cut -- $20 billion compared with $16.5 billion last year -- will make it difficult for House Democrats to support it, and it would make a conference with the Senate more difficult.
The Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to cut $23 billion over 10 years, the same as a bill passed by the full Senate last year. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has said she wants to mark up a bill in May and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said that he wants to bring it to the floor in May.
Lucas noted in the interview that he is matching the cuts proposed by President Barack Obama and many members of the House. Obama, however, made no cuts to food stamps, which are now officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, and recommended cuts to crop insurance that Lucas does not plan.
* Commodity title: Lucas did not provide details on how the $18 billion would be divided among the other titles of the bill.
But he did say that the commodity title would have the same basis as last year, which would mean elimination of the direct payments program, which costs $4.9 billion per year and the creation of two new farm programs: a shallow loss program to pay for losses not covered by crop insurance or a program with payments when crop prices fall below target prices.
Like last year, he said, payments would be made on 85 percent of planted production up to total base acres on the farm.
Each farmer could choose the program in which to participate. Lucas said he has not included the programs proposed this year by the American Soybean Association or the American Farm Bureau Federation, but that the proposals of both groups signal a desire to achieve consensus on the commodity title.
Lucas also said that the market circumstances may be different this year than last and that more farmers may be interested in having a choice besides the shallow loss program.
* SNAP: The provision to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will address categorical eligibility under which states can ease requirements for qualification and the states' pattern of sending low income people as little as $1 per month in energy benefits and then qualifying them for food stamps.
If Congress requires the states to increase the benefits in order to make people eligible for food stamps, the states, he said, "will step back from mining the treasury."
Lucas noted that people on the left want to take all the cuts out of food stamps while people on the right want to take the cuts out of nutrition programs. People who live "in the countryside" may not be impressed with the $20 billion cut to food stamps when that account makes up more than 70 percent of Agriculture Department spending, Lucas said, but "it is a major accomplishment to achieve savings across the board."
The bill will provide a safety net "both on the production side and the consumer side," Lucas said.
When people are "economically challenged," he added, "we need to help our friends up and out."
* Markup: Lucas said he does not expect the markup to last as long as the 15-hour markup in 2012, when about 100 amendments were offered.
Some of the amendments that the committee approved are being incorporated into the chairman's mark, he said. Also, instead of about half the committee made up of new members, this year it will be about 20 percent.
But he added that he still believes the markup "will be exciting" and that there will be a "great debate in committee."
* Dairy: The dairy program written by House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and approved by dairy farmers will be "the base text" of the dairy provision, Lucas said. But he noted that he expects Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., to propose an alternative that does not include provisions in the Peterson text that dairy processors consider supply management.
Noting that both Peterson and Goodlatte have chaired the Agriculture committee, he said, "Think of the visual. One former chairman on one side of me, the other on the other side. The committee is going to have to make a decision."
* Crop insurance: Lucas said he does not expect much of a debate over crop insurance in the committee, but that the agriculture community needs to be "prepared for a battle on the floor" over that program.
* Sugar: He also said he does not think the committee will "do anything too dramatic on sugar," but that there will also be a debate over sugar on the House floor.
"I believe the administration is very sincere about what they are offering, but if [the administration proposal were adopted] it would be much harder to sustain the support to keep the programs going."
* Floor action: Lucas said that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, understands there should be a five-year bill rather than another extension, while House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is still concerned about a achieving a majority vote to pass the bill.
Lucas said that after the markup he will begin "politely, respectfully" pressing for the next available slot to bring up the bill on the House floor. If he is allowed to bring the bill to the floor "in a relatively open process," he said, "I think we can achieve a necessary majority to pass the bill."
He said he hopes there will be a pre-filing requirement for amendments and some limits on "how many days or weeks" can be devoted to debate on the bill. Lucas said he believes he can get a majority of Republicans to vote for the bill, but that he also believes he can get "a large number from the other party too."
Both lobbyists in Washington and farmers "who care about production, who care about the safety net need to be prepared" for the battle ahead, he said.
"The moment we finish the markup we have to start the process of educating the membership," Lucas said. He added that he has "confidence my colleagues want to do the right thing," but that people in agriculture need to explain the economics of agriculture and the need for the safety net.
Lucas said he has found the process of writing the farm bill better this year than last.
"This time I know the lay of the land in the committee. I've had a year to work with leadership, a year to bring them along in understanding."
Maybe, he said, "practice makes perfect."
But he added, "Conference may be quite an experience."