Despite the fact that the trillion dollar Farm bill was defeated in the House 234-195 last month, farm lobbyists, food stamp advocates, and their allies on the Hill from farm states are looking to bring the measure back to the House floor for another try.
This has presented Speaker John Boehner with a big problem; how to satisfy budget hawks who think the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) should be cut more than the bill allows.
Food stamps, or SNAP, make up 80% of the farm bill, spending $800 billion over the next 10 years. The Senate version envisions $4 billion in cuts while the House sees $20 billion. There is also a split between the two chambers on what to replace the direct payments program with as well as on food aid to poor countries.
But SNAP is the major sticking point and Boehner is faced with a decision.
Behind the scenes, the fight over the bill is pitting House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) against Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). While Cantor wants to divide the bill and cut more spending, Lucas wants to keep it intact with only modest changes.
Boehner is under pressure from all sides.
The Speaker received a letter this week from 532 farm groups demanding he bring the farm bill back to the floor without changes.
Conservative Tea Party activists, meanwhile, are pushing him to strip out the more than $800 billion in food stamp spending in the farm bill and put it in a separate measure with deeper cuts.
Splitting the bill would risk breaking apart the urban-rural coalition that has ensured passage of farm spending for more than four decades. Conservative activists believe breaking the alliance would allow them to slash two sources of wasteful government spending.
The House bill cuts the program mainly by limiting eligibility. First, it reduces the ability of those receiving home heating assistance to automatically qualify for food stamps. Second, it would force potential recipients to apply for food stamps separately, rather than allowing them to qualify for multiple assistance programs at once.
Rural Democrats led by Rep. Colin Peterson (R-Minn.) claimed that around 40 Democrats were prepared to accept the $20.5 billion in cuts with the knowledge that they would likely be reduced in a House-Senate bill conference.
But before the vote last month, House Republicans approved an amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Ill.) that Peterson said was a poison pill. The amendment would allow states to require adult food stamp recipients to either find work or enroll in job training, and would give states a financial incentive to reduce enrollment.
Only 24 Democrats voted for the farm bill, and conservative defections piled up once it became clear the bill would fail.
Democrats might have some advantage in the food stamp fight because failing to pass a farm bill would not end SNAP. As an entitlement, it would continue after Sept. 30 on autopilot.
Democrats almost certainly won’t go for the split bill strategy. They didn’t want to cut food stamps in the first place, and it is likely that shaving off the SNAP program from the bill will allow House GOP members to cut even more than the $20 billion already targeted. Even if the farm bill would pass the House minus food stamps, the Senate may choose not to even go to conference committee.
But as the article notes, congressional authorization isn’t needed for SNAP because of its status as an entitlement. With no action to rein in the program, the existing rules will continue beyond September 30. This gives Democrats a little leverage in SNAP reform whether it’s in the final House bill or not.
Boehner is acting like a deer in headlights. Caught between competing forces, his hesitation reveals an awareness of his own weakness. He is trying to find a way to satisfy at least some Democrats in order to pass the bill while not alienating too many budget hawks.
It’s a tightrope act without a net and Boehner is acting as if he doesn’t even want to try.