The U.S. House of Representatives approved a scaled-back farm bill Thursday, setting up what could be an even bigger fight over food stamps and the role of domestic food aid in the United States.
Lawmakers took food stamps out of the agricultural subsidies bill, which has authorized the program since the 1970s. The pairing was designed to gain urban votes for what is mostly a rural measure. But that union soured this year as food stamps exploded in cost, doubling during five years to $80 billion.
Though the bill has little chance of passing the Senate, and President Barack Obama has promised a veto, Republicans bought Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s argument that this may be their last chance to pass something. With a vote of 216-208, no Democrat voted for it, and only 12 Republicans voted against it.
“Thank God, we can do something!” exclaimed Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., as he walked off the floor after the final vote.
In voting for the bill, conservative lawmakers bucked conservative groups Club for Growth and Heritage Action, both of which say Republicans missed an opportunity to reduce waste and end support for agricultural special interests. The Competitive Enterprise Institute said the bill “greatly expands the crop insurance subsidy program.” Some subsidies could become permanent, too, because the bill repeals laws that kick in when current farm law expires.
Cantor, R-Va., promised to “act with dispatch” to pass food stamps legislation, which Democrats fear will require deep cuts to benefits for about 47 million people. If a bill to cut food stamps reaches the House floor, it could provide the first major debate in decades over the role of the program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Proposals to reduce SNAP have ranged from what was in the original farm bill, a 3 percent cut and changes in eligibility, to a program overhaul that would take a fraction of the federal money now spent and give it to the states to administer. Republican support for broad new work requirements on food stamps caused many Democrats reject the bill in June.
The Senate overwhelmingly passed a farm bill last month with only a half-percent cut to SNAP. Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called the Thursday’s House bill “an insult to rural America.” Since the food stamp program doesn’t expire, it would remain in force if the current farm bill is allowed to expire Sept. 30.
The bill passed Thursday still includes directions for the Food for Peace program, which sends American farmers’ surplus produce overseas to poor countries in times of emergencies. One small amendment directs the administrator to get information “from implementing agencies on the potential benefits to the local economy of sales of agricultural commodities within the recipient country.” It’s already well-documented, though, that shipping American food undercuts local farmers. The U.S. could save money and help local economies by buying food inside the affected countries. Even President Obama wants such reform, but lawmakers again have demonstrated that protecting U.S. farmers may trump relieving famine overseas.