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Farm bill draft takes bite out of food stamps
Illinois Correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lawmakers in the House and Senate will restart its efforts to pass a new five-year farm bill beginning this week, as committees in both chambers begin markups on proposed bills.

And, at least in the House, Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., already has put a bigger target on the back of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

SNAP disbursements made up about 70 percent of all spending in the last farm bill, passed in 2008; the SNAP program provides food assistance to low income families and individuals.

Lucas announced last week that his version of a new bill would shave about $20 billion from the SNAP program, up from the estimated $16 billion that was included in the House committee’s version of a bill last fall. The full House did not vote on that measure.

The new House farm bill is expected to save about $39 billion in the next 10 years, or about $4 billion more than last year’s House bill, Lucas said.

A new Senate farm bill is expected to look similar to the one the full chamber approved last fall, shaving about $23.5 billion over 10 years and with a much smaller target on the SNAP program’s back. That bill looked to cut food stamps by about $4.5 billion, but the new version under panel review starting this week includes SNAP cuts of just $4.1 billion.

Lucas said he senses a desire by most House members to push consideration of farm policy by the end of May, in part because both chambers are looking to deal with other issues, such as immigration reform, before a summer recess.

And he admitted that reconciling the differences between both proposed farm bills could prove difficult.

“Conference (committee) may be quite an experience,” Lucas said in a conference call, adding that he remains optimistic in part because of new members on his committee – including Illinois Reps. Bill Enyart and Cheri Bustos – who are eager to pass a new farm bill.

“This time I know the lay of the land in the committee,” Lucas said. “I’ve had a year to work with leadership, a year to bring them along in understanding.”

About the only major common ground among the new proposals in both chambers is the elimination of direct payments to farmers, which last year totaled about $5 billion.

Some tweaks to the crop insurance program are likely, but Lucas said he doesn’t see any significant changes to the federally subsidized safety net. Federal funding for the program totaled about $9 billion last year.

Large cuts to SNAP, compared to the crop insurance program, won’t sit well with a key member of the Senate ag panel, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, who pushed last year for more cuts in the crop insurance program rather than SNAP.

“I don’t know under what world our colleagues think these cuts are acceptable, but tightening our belts around the waists of children and veterans and active duty service members is not how we should be balancing our debt and deficit,” Gillibrand said during a conference call last week.