After failing to pass a farm bill in June, House Republicans might cut food stamps from the legislation and try again, a move Montana U.S. Rep. Steve Daines said could be the only way forward.
“Where do we go next?” Daines, a Republican, asked the Billings Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. “There is talk of splitting them up. Will that work? The jury is out, but it didn’t work keeping them together. You know they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. I think something needs to change on this.”
The House farm bill failed 195-234 in late June, largely because Democrats and Republicans disagreed over cutting nutrition subsidies for poor Americans. House Republicans favored cutting $21 billion from nutrition programs, the biggest one being the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Democrats said those cuts were too deep, and as Republicans added amendments to the bill making it more difficult for the poor to qualify for help, Democrats pulled their support.
The answer, Republicans are now suggesting, could be cutting the nutrition programs from the bill to be voted on separately. But several farm groups disagree. Tuesday, farm organizations, along with commodity groups and several hundred agricultural businesses, wrote Republican House Speaker John Boehner and implored him not to divide the farm bill, the fear being that Democrats’ support for both bills would fade and Republican leaders would have to make deep cuts to appease their majority and assure passage.
President Barack Obama has already said he would veto the farm bill if the $21 billion in nutrition program cuts sought by the House made it to his desk.
Nutrition programs and farm programs have been joined at the hip for decades, largely because the marriage forced urban and rural lawmakers to vote for each other’s interests.
Urban lawmakers disinterested in farm subsidies supported them anyway because the farm bill’s nutrition programs benefited the urban poor. Rural lawmakers supported food stamps to the get federally subsidized crop insurance and other programs for farmers.
House Republicans say cutting the nutrition programs from the farm bill would make it truly about farming. Currently, nutrition subsidies account for roughly 80 percent of farm bill spending, which over five years would cost taxpayers $500 billion.
Tuesday, Daines told the Chamber of Commerce that the farm bill in its current form would be better titled the food stamp bill. Republicans have a strong majority in the House and could pass the farm bill if only they could coalesce on spending. But some Republicans want even deeper cuts to nutrition programs, while others say farm subsidies are also too heavily larded for approval.
The Senate passed its version of the farm bill in early June on a bipartisan vote. That bill, which cuts only $4 billion from nutrition programs, is waiting to be reconciled with the House version in conference committee. If the House cannot bring a bill to conference by Sept. 30, this will be the second year in a row that the Senate passed a farm bill while the House didn’t. Farm state lawmakers like Daines are aware that failure won’t go over well back home, where one in five Montana jobs is tied to agriculture.
“So the short-term goal is get it to conference, and one path forward might be a separation of the two because obviously the combination of them didn’t work, so we've got to look at a different strategy,” Daines said.