The biggest issue in the U.S. farm bill has little to do with agriculture and everything to do with partisan politics and the role of government in caring for the poor: food stamps.
It has a catchier name now, SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The mark-up of the $500 billion measure approved 36-10 by the House Agriculture Committee last week cuts $20.5 billion in food assistance over 10 years to rein in SNAP's growth. The program, which serves 47 million Americans, averages $70 billion a year, about 70 percent of farm bill spending and eclipsing the crop insurance program.
Predictably, Republicans say the cuts to SNAP should be bigger while Democrats argue they're too big.
The program has doubled since the recession hit in 2008 and Congress approved a temporary expansion of the program, which expires later this year.
The Trust for America's Health issued a statement criticizing the cuts, saying they would damage the nation's health and noting a competing Senate Agriculture Committee measure makes much smaller cuts.
"That said, if the nation continues to underfund vital public health programs, we will never achieve long-term fiscal stability as it will be impossible to help people get/stay healthy, happy and productive," the statement said.
Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the trust called the cuts "disproportionate" and "deplorable," noting nearly half the beneficiaries are children.
The cuts, he said, would take 3 million people off the eligibility list and deny 280,000 children school meals.
Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., disagreed.
"I like to think we have a well-balanced bill and that we can draw from all sides," he told Roll Call. "The extremes will never support us. I think we have enough of a coalition."
Ranking Democrat Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota said lawmakers have to recognize SNAP needs to be modified.
"We have the middle ground. I worked with Frank on this. He thinks he has what he needs to get the bill through his caucus."
In addition to the SNAP cuts, the farm bill cuts direct payments to farmers, who get some $5 billion whether or not they grow corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops mainly in the Midwest and Plains. Some of the money will go toward trimming the deficit but the rest goes to new subsidies for southern crops: peanuts, cotton and rice. A late amendment also preserved the Christmas tree-promotion program, which would raise $2 million annually at 15 cents a tree for a program similar to those for beef and milk.
Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., admits the bill is far from perfect but sees it as a good compromise.
"The fact that Democrats and Republicans could come together with a 36-10 vote meant that we have to compromise on some things," Bustos told saukvalley.com.
"Whenever I talk with farmers, their No. 1 concern is that they want certainty. Our bill does that. It gives farmers certainty. When we have severe weather, they can deal with that."
The omnibus farm bill requires reauthorization every five years. In addition to SNAP, crop insurance and crop subsidies, it covers trade and marketing, rural development, conservation and agriculture research.
The last farm bill -- the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 -- increased spending by $288 billion and provided increased subsidies for such things as biofuels, which the World Bank has blamed for increased food prices worldwide. It initially was to expire last year but was extended through Sept. 30 in the deal that averted the so-called fiscal cliff.