CHN: Senate Passes Farm Bill – Still a Ways to Go
On December 14 after weeks of stalemate, the Senate passed the 2007 Farm Bill with nutrition provisions that closely mirror those passed by the House in July (http://www.chn.org/humanneeds/070803b.html). The Senate version of the Farm, Nutrition and Bioenergy Act of 2007 (H.R. 2419) passed 79-14. The House bill adds $3.3 billion to the Food Stamp Program over 5 years while the Senate adds $3.6 billion. The House bill increases funding for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), which purchases food for emergency feeding organizations, by $600 million and the Senate by $550 million over 5 years.
Like the House, the Senate addresses years of erosion in Food Stamp Program benefits by increasing the standard deduction and minimum benefit. The House bill raises the standard deduction, frozen since 1995, from $134 to $145 and the Senate includes a smaller increase to $140. Both would begin indexing the standard deduction for inflation. The minimum benefit received mostly by single individuals that are elderly or disabled would be increased in both bills from the current $10 to $16 in 2009 and would be adjusted according to increases in food prices in later years. Retirement accounts and education accounts would no longer by counted when determining assets. Both bills allow working households to deduct the full amount of child care costs related to work.
The Senate bill would raise the food stamp asset limit from $2,000 to $3,500 for most households and from $3,000 to $4,500 for households with elderly or disabled members and index the limits for inflation. The House bill would begin to index the current limits. The House bill includes a prohibition on contracting with private companies to determine eligibility for the Food Stamp Program while the Senate bill does not.
Both the House and Senate increases annual funding for TEFAP from the current $140 million a year to $250 million, but only the House would index it for inflation in later years. The Senate bill would substantially increase funding for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program in schools from the current $9 million a year to $225 million while the House increase, though still large, is only $70 million.
The House bill pays for the improvements in the Food Stamp program by closing a tax loophole for foreign corporations who do business in the United States but evade paying taxes. The Senate does not include this pay-for but rather found some offsets in other parts of the bill to pay for improvements in the nutrition title.
One significant difference in the two bills is that the House bill makes these changes in nutrition programs permanent while the provisions in the Senate bill expire after 5 years. This will be a significant issue to resolve early next year when negotiations between the House and Senate on a conference agreement will take place. The nutrition title is only one of the titles in the $286 billion Farm Bill. Others include conservation, crop subsidies, dairy, forestry, and rural development. Substantial issues in these titles will also need to be worked out.
The Farm Bill which expired in September has been temporarily extended several times as a rider on extensions of appropriations bills. The FY 2008 omnibus appropriations bill that the Congress passed this week extends programs in the Farm Bill until March 15. It will be important to pass the Farm Bill early in 2008 in order for improvements in the Food Stamp Program and TEFAP to begin taking effect.