WASHINGTON — The House Agriculture Committee approved a $940 billion farm bill, a day after the Senate passed its version, setting the stage for Congress to finally begin work on a new five-year bill.
The vote by the House committee last week was 36-10, with mostly Democrats voting against the bill after nine hours of debate.
Efforts to pass a farm bill last year failed when House leaders refused to bring their version of the bill to the floor for a vote. The Senate did pass its version. The most recent farm bill, which passed in 2008, was extended until Sept. 30.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., praised the committee in passing the bill but warned that there was still work ahead as the measure headed to the full House.
“I’m pleased the committee was able to work together, find some common ground, and advance a five-year farm bill today,” Lucas said.
The House bill cuts projected spending in farm and nutrition programs by nearly $40 billion over the next 10 years. Just over half, $20.5 billion, would come from cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. The Senate voted to cut spending by $23 billion, with $4.1 billion of the cuts coming from the food stamp program.
The House bill, like the Senate’s version, would eliminate direct payments to farmers, which are made annually whether they grow crops or not. Currently, farmers who grow corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and other crops receive about $5 billion in direct payments. Billions of dollars saved by eliminating the payments would be directed into other subsidy programs, including crop insurance and new subsidies for peanut, cotton and rice farmers.
The House, like the Senate, basically left the sugar program alone, keeping price supports and restrictions on imports intact. The bill adds money to support fruit and vegetable growers. It also restores insurance programs for livestock producers, which expired in 2001, leaving thousands of operations without disaster coverage last year during the worst drought in 50 years.
The House farm bill passed the committee with strong bipartisan support but exposed a division among committee members over the size of cuts to the food stamp program, which has long been a target of conservatives.
Hoping to get more Republicans to support the bill, Lucas and Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member on the committee, increased the amount of the cuts by $4 billion from $16 billion in last year’s bill.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and a number of other Democrats on the committee offered an amendment that would have restored proposed cuts to the food stamp program. That amendment was defeated 27-17. The vote was largely along party lines, although Peterson, along with two other Democrats, voted against the amendment.
Cutting the food stamp program was hotly debated, with members quoting the Bible to support keeping the food stamp program at the current level or cutting it.
Rep. Juan C. Vargas, D-Calif., who opposes the cuts, began the thread by quoting a biblical passage from the 25th chapter of the Book of Matthew.
“I’m a Christian, and this chapter talks about how you treat the least among us,” said Vargas, adding that he would not support a bill that made such deep cuts to the anti-hunger program.
But K. Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, countered that argument.
“I take umbrage to that,” he said. “I take Matthew 25 to mean me as an individual, not the U.S. government.”
Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., then quoted a verse from the 26th chapter of Matthew, saying the “poor will always be with us” in his defense of cuts to the food stamps program.
Fincher said obligations to take care of the poor should be left to churches, not the government.
“Christians, Jews Muslims, whatever — we are failing our sisters and brothers,” McGovern shot back.
A report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan Washington research group, said the cuts in the food stamp program would eliminate 2 million people from the program, most of them children and older people. The report said the cuts would come in addition to a reduction that food stamp recipients would experience starting Nov. 1, when benefits that were increased under the 2008 economic stimulus expire.
“Placing the SNAP cuts in this farm bill on top of the benefit cuts that will take effect in November is likely to put substantial numbers of poor families at risk of food insecurity,” the report said.
Senate leaders announced Wednesday that they would begin work on their $955 billion farm bill this week. House leaders have not set a timetable.
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