Amendments that would have cut $2 billion per year from the federal food stamp program scuttled a badly needed farm bill on June 20.
The bill would change the way crop insurance, dairy, and commodities are handled, and would have allocated $500 billion dollars to agriculture over five years. Disagreement over the food stamps portion, though, led to a 234-195 vote against the bill, including 62 Republicans voting against it.
Work requirements and drug testing for food stamp recipients further poisoned the legislation for Democrats and some Republicans.
The addition of the optional state work requirements by an amendment just before final passage turned away any remaining Democratic votes the bill’s supporters may have had.
Opposition Forms Over Dairy and Food Stamps
Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said the work requirements, along with another vote that scuttled a proposed dairy overhaul, turned too many lawmakers against the measure.
“Our people didn’t know this was coming,” Peterson said after the vote.
Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said the same, telling reporters the vote “turned out to be a heavier lift even than I expected.”
Georgia Democrat John Lewis has opposed any cuts to aid to the poor. He voted against the farm bill.
The food stamp program and similar programs are a necessity nowadays more than ever, he said in a recent statement.
“They are a basic obligation to our fellow citizens and to our community,” he said. “To ensure that hard-working American families do not have to add hunger and heat to the problems they face, I am committed to protecting these essential programs.”
Lewis, a veteran of the American civil rights movement and of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, asked the Deficit Reduction committee to leave the food stamp program out of any cuts, and filibustered proposed cuts to Women, Infants, and Children, a supplemental nutrition program for low-income and pregnant or post-birth women.
Republican Divide Over the Bill
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) voted for the bill. Boehner supported the dairy amendment and Cantor supported the amendment that imposed work requirements on food stamp recipients.
Fellow Republicans Lucas and Peterson, who voted against the bill, had warned that adoption of those amendments could help lead to the bill not getting passed.
Lucas and Ranking Agriculture Committee Member Collin Peterson of Minnesota described the farm bill (or the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013) as a bipartisan bill that cuts spending, reduces the size of government, and makes common-sense reforms to policy.
Lucus said that the bill is essential and “ensuring that our farmers and ranchers have the tools they need to produce an abundant and affordable food and fiber supply is as important to our country as national defense.”
In previous years, farm bills have been bipartisan, more or less common-sense, and acceptable to both parties. Not in 2013.
Dairy Production Limits Key Point of Divide
As important as food production is, food stamps and aid to the poor were not the only aspects of the bill in dispute.
The dairy policy change was controversial. It would have eliminated dairy production limits. Peterson, from a dairy producing state, wants production limits in order to protect farmers from plummeting prices when too much milk is produced. He said dairy farmers were devastated in 2009 when prices dropped. In a constituent letter, he wrote, “Many producers were forced out of business while others just barely managed to survive. The dairy safety net did not work then and it won’t work if similar events occur now.”
New realities in the modern dairy industry need to be addressed, such as rising input costs and a growing export market, he said.
Dairy farmers wanted the limits, but dairy processors wanted to end them.
House Speaker Boehner wrote a dear colleague letter asking for support for the dairy amendment. He said it would keep milk prices low for consumers and help America compete globally.
“The bottom line is this: the federal government doesn’t control the supply or price of bread, clothes, or cell phones – it shouldn’t be doing so for milk,” wrote Boehner. He called it a common sense, free market policy.
With the bill’s defeat over food stamps, other policy matters must also go back to the drawing board. The bill is essentially dead until the House Agriculture Committee reworks it–and if that happened, the House Judiciary Committee would have to agree to send it to the floor for a vote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.