CHN: House Removes SNAP and Other Nutrition Programs from Farm Bill to Enable Passage; Senate Sends Its Bill to House to Try to Force Conference Committee Action

On Thursday, July 11 the House passed a split version of the farm bill (H.R. 2642) that excludes all nutrition programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and deals solely with the agriculture side of bill, including making crop subsidies permanent and the most expensive in history, according to the Environmental Working Group. This agriculture-only bill barely passed by a 216-208 vote, with no Democrats voting in favor. Historically, nutrition and agriculture programs have been tied together, so this change has been highly criticized, with over 500 food, farm, and conservation groups opposing passage of the bill (click here to see the letter these groups sent to Speaker Boehner).
Earlier this year, the Senate passed a bipartisan farm bill (S. 954), which created savings of $24 billion and cut $4.1 billion from SNAP over ten years. The House subsequently tried to push through their version, H.R. 1947, a bill that cut $20.5 billion from SNAP and included contentious provisions such as the Southerland Amendment, which mandated work for SNAP recipients.  The bill lost most Democratic support as well as 62 Republican House members, and failed 195-234.  Most of the Republican opponents wanted more cuts to SNAP; for Democrats, the SNAP cuts were too harsh. (For more information about recent action on the farm bill and SNAP, see this article from the June 1, 2013 edition of the Human Needs Report.)

The decision to remove nutrition programs from H.R. 2642 enabled House leadership to garner enough Republican votes for the bill’s passage, but has been heavily condemned by nutrition advocates, who fear that SNAP will be at risk of higher cuts if it is forced to stand on its own.  House leaders have promised that a separate nutrition bill will be forthcoming, which may have even deeper SNAP cuts than those included in the farm bill originally reported out of the House Agriculture Committee.  A working group convened by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) is trying to come up with a nutrition bill.  House Nutrition Subcommittee Chair Steve King (R-IA) is expected to propose ending SNAP’s permanent authorization and replacing it with authorization that sunsets after 5 years unless Congress acts to extend it.

Opposition to SNAP for some in the House is very intense, often because it is seen as an illegitimate form of redistribution of wealth.  Representative Stephen Fincher (R-TN), speaking in Memphis after the vote, said “The role of citizens, of Christians, of humanity is to take care of each other, but not for Washington to steal from those in the country and give to others in the country.”  The Environmental Working Group, however, has identified Rep. Fincher as receiving more than $70,000 in direct farm subsidy payments in 2012, and $3.48 million from 1999 to 2012.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) and 27 other Democrats, including Ranking Nutrition Subcommittee member Marcia Fudge (D-OH), have sent a letter calling for a hearing about SNAP before voting on nutrition legislation.

The House sent its farm-only bill over to the Senate so that conferees can eventually be appointed to work out the large differences with the Senate bill.  The Senate and the White House are firm in rejecting the idea of a farm bill without a nutrition title.  As quoted in CQ, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D – MI) has promised to work with the House on coming to an agreement on the farm bill, but has also stated that the new House bill “is not a real Farm Bill and is an insult to rural America.” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D – IL) has also stated that the Senate will not pass a farm bill without the nutrition title included, while Obama issued a veto threat for an agriculture-only farm bill earlier this month.

On Thursday, July 18 Stabenow sent the Senate farm bill back to the House.  The House has to decide whether it will pass a separate nutrition bill and take that and its farm legislation to a conference with the Senate, or negotiate off the Senate bill.

Because SNAP is permanently authorized, it continues unchanged if it is left out of the final farm bill.  But if no bill is agreed to by September 30, the farm provisions will expire and subsidies will revert to much lower amounts under decades-old legislation.

The challenges to SNAP illustrate the importance of SNAP’s current permanent authorization.  However, the program does require Congress to continue its funding through annual appropriations bills.  In the past, bipartisan support for this essential safety net program has always meant that funding has always been approved, even during the government shutdown triggered by appropriations brinksmanship under former Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990’s.  Advocates are hopeful that support for this essential nutrition program would prevent any disruption this time too.

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