House farm bill defeat frustrates Montanans

2013-06-20T16:57:00Z 2013-07-04T06:17:05Z House farm bill defeat frustrates MontanansBy TOM LUTEY The Billings Gazette

Montanans responded with extreme disappointment to U.S. House lawmakers’ failure to pass a farm bill Thursday.

“It’s just the way the House has evolved,” said Lola Raska, of the Montana Grain Growers Association. “You have the extreme factions of both parties that are gaining more of a presence, more of a voice, controlling more of the politics and splitting what used to be a two-party system.”

Every Montana farm organization expressed frustration at Thursday’s vote.

Republicans on the far right rejected the $100-billion-a-year funding bill for not taking a bigger whack out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, and for not cutting farm subsidies.

Democrats balked at SNAP cuts totaling $2 billion a year and Republican-added amendments that made qualifying for the benefit more difficult. Early in the farm bill process, the Congressional Budget Office concluded that 1.8 million Americans would no longer be eligible for SNAP under the new farm bill rules. The CBO report didn’t address tougher restrictions added by Republicans during floor debates this week.

The farm bill now goes back to the House Agriculture Committee for retooling, but time is running out in the congressional year, which ends Sept. 30 and includes a long Fourth of July break and an August recess. Immigration reform is likely to consume much of the summer.

Raska said farmers are likely to receive another short-term fix to keep crop subsidies alive so the House can take another shot at passing a farm bill in 2014. This is the second year in a row the Senate passed a bipartisan bill and the House has failed to do so. Farm bill extensions don’t provide economic certainty for farmers or banks issuing farm operating loans. Also, short-term deals usually don’t cut federal farm spending the way a five-year farm bill can.

Some say the House farm bill’s failure was a good thing for poor Montanans. Gayle Gifford, Montana Food Bank Network CEO, said new contingencies for SNAP eligibility would deny food assistance to some poor people, while at the same time delaying help for those who do qualify.

In Montana, 126,547 people, including 17,652 Yellowstone County residents, used SNAP in 2012. The program cost $195 million, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

“It’s always frustrating for us when it takes this long to get something through that’s so needed in this state,” Gifford said.

House cuts to SNAP promised to increase the burden on food pantries like the Montana Food Bank Network, which last year distributed 7.5 million pounds of food through 180 pantries, kitchens and shelters statewide. Gifford’s Missoula-based organization belongs to a larger, national food charity, Feeding America. Feeding America estimated that House cuts to federal food subsidies took four times more food away from America’s poor than Feeding America pantries currently distribute in a month.

“When SNAP isn’t available to people, they will be looking to local pantries,” Gifford said.

Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., voted for the farm bill and afterward urged House leaders to try again before this fall.

“I am deeply disappointed and frustrated by the House’s failure to pass a five-year farm bill today," he said. "This legislation is long overdue and it is unacceptable that Congress continues to stand in the way of providing our ag producers and rural communities with a long-term solution."

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