Wrestling Over Food Stamps Dooms Farm Bill
WASHINGTON – The farm bill collapsed in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday, as divisions over food stamp cuts and the shape of future agriculture subsidies continue to divide Congress along party lines and within GOP ranks.
The House rejected the bill by a vote of 195 to 234, with 62 Republicans opposing the bill and only 24 Democrats voting in favor of it. The latest setback for the $939 billion agriculture bill came a week after the Senate had already passed its $955 billion version.
Republicans blamed Democrats for the bill’s outcome, while others blamed the Republican leadership for ignoring the conservatives in the House.
“What happens with our leadership is that they try to negotiate in good faith…and they actually ignore the conservatives because they think they have a bipartisan agreement with the Democrats,” said Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) Wednesday during the “Conversations with Conservatives” event.
“If they would have actually negotiated with the conservatives, we would have had a farm bill passed out of the House last week,” he continued.
Labrador also criticized the Democrats for trying to attribute the bill’s failure to several amendments introduced by House Republicans.
“The Democrats keep saying that it was the amendments on the floor that killed [the bill]. Let’s not forget that two days before the vote, the president of the United States said he was going to veto the bill. Two days before the vote, Nancy Pelosi stood up and said that it was a bad bill and that she hoped that every Democrat would vote against it,” said Labrador. “The farm bill died because the Democratic leadership had indicated they wanted it to die.”
The defeat of the legislation dealt a huge blow to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership team. The bill’s failure also allowed Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to call her GOP counterparts amateurs in running the House.
“What [was] happening on the floor today was a demonstration of major amateur hour,” Pelosi told reporters after the vote. “They didn't get results, and they put the blame on somebody else.”
Most Democrats voted against the bill because it cut food stamp programs by more than $20 billion. A series of proposals by House Republicans all but doomed the legislation. Democrats called an amendment that opened the door to states to impose work requirements on able-bodied food stamp recipients, a proposal backed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), as the last straw. One of the proposals contained language allowing states to drug-test food stamp applicants.
Nearly 80 percent of the proposed farm bill spending would be set aside for food stamps and nutrition programs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed in January that 23 million households receive food assistance. The most recent USDA statistics show that the number of food stamp recipients has topped 47 million, an increase of nearly 70 percent since 2008. The average monthly benefit for one beneficiary is $133.44.
Before the House vote, a group of House Democrats, organized by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), participated in the Food Stamp Challenge, hoping that the publicity move would highlight the inadequacies of the food assistance system.
The Food Stamp Challenge is an effort to encourage Americans to spend a week or two buying their food using only the budget provided to those dependent on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The challenge reflects the allowance of $31.50 per-person, or $4.50 a day, that an individual receives under the SNAP program.
Critics of the challenge say that SNAP is designed to be a supplement to people’s food budget, and not the entire food budget. They also point out that the SNAP program is intended to be used to buy food for home-cooked meals, not fast- or highly processed food.
Rep. Steven Stockman (R-Texas) said in a press release two days before the vote that Democrats participating in the challenge have been intentionally buying overpriced food to make the cuts appear more severe.
Donny Ferguson, communications director and agricultural policy adviser in Stockman’s office, took the challenge in response to around 30 House Democrats who had taken the challenge to protest the proposed cuts to the food assistance program.
“I wanted to personally experience the effects of the proposed cuts to food stamps. I didn’t plan ahead or buy strategically, I just saw the publicity stunt and made a snap decision to drive down the street and try it myself. I put my money where my mouth is, and the proposed food stamp cuts are still quite filling,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson declared himself “the Undisputed 2013 SNAP Challenge Champion” after feeding himself for a week with a daily budget of $3.94 a day, less than the $4.50 the challenge required.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who took on the challenge along with his fellow Democrats, said the food assistance programs lessen dependency by providing a better diet to recipients, which contributes to a person’s productivity and motivation.
“I conclude that adequate food assistance for people who need a hand up benefits the recipients and creates greater value for society as a whole,” said Johnson after completing the challenge.
SNAP, a program seen by many Democrats as untouchable and by many Republicans as unsustainable, is the largest of the 15 domestic food and nutrition assistance programs overseen by the USDA. The current form of SNAP started as an unlikely alliance between Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and George McGovern (D-S.D.) in the 1970s. The Food Stamp Reform Act of 1977 eliminated the requirement to purchase food stamps, which had been a part of the program since its creation in the 1930s.
Seventy-five percent of SNAP participants use their own money, in addition to SNAP benefits, to purchase food, according to the USDA. Nearly 40 percent of households receive the maximum allotment.
The maximum monthly benefits increase as the size of the household grows. Households with children receive 71 percent of all SNAP benefits. A family of five, for instance, may receive a maximum allotment of $793 a month. The USDA publishes an extensive list of recipes that can be used to produce a healthy low-cost meal, and it has created official food plans that spell out the cost of “a nutritious diet” at four different levels of cost.
The maximum SNAP benefit is supposed to cover more than 100 percent of the “Thrifty plan,” the lowest-cost option, which for a family of five would cost between $600 and $800 a month.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) introduced an amendment to restore the $20.5 billion cuts from SNAP by making equivalent cuts to the farm subsidy programs. His amendment failed 188 to 234, mostly on a party-line vote.
Many agricultural policy observers have suggested separating the farm programs from the food stamp program into separate bills as a way to depoliticize the issue. For decades, lawmakers on the agriculture committees have added food assistance programs to farm bills to garner urban votes.
“The food stamp portion creates a reason for urban representatives to support farm subsidies, and for farm-state lawmakers to support food stamps,” said Daren Bakst and Diane Katz, two research fellows at the Heritage Foundation. “Talk of de-politicizing agriculture programs and welfare policy is met with stiff resistance.”
Republicans said the bill would come back to the House floor with changes, including proposals to reform the food stamp programs.