WASHINGTON — The House Agriculture Committee is considering a five-year farm bill that would make small cuts to the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program.
The cuts are part of massive legislation that costs almost $100 billion annually and would set policy for farm subsidies, rural programs and the food aid. The House panel started work on the legislation Wednesday, one day after the Senate Agriculture Committee approved its version.
The House bill would cut about $2.5 billion a year — or a little more than 3 percent — from the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The legislation would achieve the cuts partly by eliminating an eligibility category that mandates automatic food stamp benefits when people sign up for certain other benefit programs.
Last year more than 47 million people used the SNAP program, or about 1 in 7 Americans, with the cost more than doubling since 2008. The rolls rose rapidly because of the economic downturn, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under President Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus law.
Republicans criticized Obama in last year's presidential campaign for his expansion of the program, and many House conservatives have refused to consider a farm bill without cuts to food stamps, which make up about 80 percent of the bill's cost.
The Senate approved much smaller cuts to the program, about $400 million a year. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., will have to appease all sides as he tries to push the farm bill through for the third year in a row, balancing calls from House conservatives to cut the program with Senate Democrats who are reluctant to touch it.
"I expect it to come from all directions," Lucas said last week of the food stamp debate.
The House bill would cut around $4 billion a year from food aid and farm spending, while the Senate bill would trim roughly $2.4 billion. Those reductions include more than $600 million in yearly savings from across-the-board cuts that took effect earlier this year.
Much of the savings in the House and Senate bills comes from eliminating $5 billion in annual direct payments, a subsidy frequently criticized because it isn't tied to production or crop prices. Part of that savings would go toward the deficit reduction, but the rest of the money would create new programs and raise subsidies for some crops while business is booming in the agricultural sector.
The Senate bill would eliminate direct payments immediately, while the House bill would phase out payments to cotton farmers, who rely on the program, over the next two years.
Like the Senate bill, the House measure also includes concessions to Southern rice and peanut growers who also depend on direct payments. The bills would lower the threshold for rice and peanut subsidies to kick in when prices drop.
There are protections for other crops as well. Both bills would boost federally subsidized crop insurance and create a new program that covers smaller losses on planted crops before crop insurance kicks in, favoring Midwestern corn and soybean farmers, who use crop insurance most often.
Lucas made no apologies for broadening some farm programs.
"Let's give certainty to an industry that has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal economy," he said Wednesday as he opened the committee meeting.
The farm bill passed the Senate last year but the House declined to take it up after conservatives in that chamber objected to the cost and insisted on higher cuts to food stamps. This year, House leaders have said they plan to put the bill on the floor.
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