(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.
(c) 2013, Bloomberg News.
WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers meeting Wednesday to reconcile House and Senate versions of agricultural policy legislation will find the table crowded with members who have deeply held and widely divergent views on food stamps.
The tension is underscored by conferees the House leadership has added to the House-Senate negotiating committee: tea party Republican Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida and Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, chairwoman of the all- Democrat Congressional Black Caucus.
With a new law needed before outmoded programs potentially double milk prices early next year, both President Obama and House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have called for passage of a bill. The appointment of conferees from outside traditional rural constituencies — and who are polar opposites on food stamps — shows the law may not be the place where a new era of deal-making will dawn.
"It wouldn't come as any surprise if the nutrition title is the toughest thing to negotiate," said Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, a conferee.
Spending on food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is the biggest conflict surrounding the bill, which benefits processors including Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. and insurance companies such as Wells Fargo & Co. along with grocers including SuperValu Inc. By subsidizing food purchases, the farm bill encourages production, while its conservation and economic development programs promote rural business growth and a cleaner environment.
The farm bill, normally left to rural lawmakers, has emerged as a partisan flashpoint as House Republicans have targeted food stamps for cuts.
The Democratic-controlled Senate would cut $4 billion over ten years from food stamps in its farm-bill version. The version passed by the Republican-led House, H.R. 2642, would cut $39 billion over a decade.
Minnesota's Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said House Republican leaders complicated the prospects for a deal by asking for $39 billion in cuts — nearly double the $20.5 billion reduction the committee had approved in its bill, H.R. 1947.
"It doesn't help when you get people to vote for that higher number," Peterson said. "It's going to make it harder to compromise."
Food-stamp spending reached a record $78.4 billion in fiscal 2012, the last year for which data were available, amid a 77 percent increase in annual average food-stamp enrollment since 2007. Monthly food-stamp enrollment peaked in December at 47.8 million and was 47.6 million in July, the most recent month available.
The House measure also would require work or job training, let states drug test-recipients as a condition of eligibility and set food aid on a different authorization timeline from farm subsidies. That would divorce food stamps from agriculture programs, a goal of tea party-affiliated groups.
"I know where he stands, he knows where I stand," Fudge said of Southerland. "Obviously we are in very, very different places in our position, but I just hope there will be more reasonable people on the conference, people who understand in a very different way than maybe he does."
During House farm-bill debate in July, Southerland backed an amendment covering work requirements for able-bodied adults without children that torpedoed Democratic support when the House first attempted to pass a farm bill.
"I think 80 percent of America agrees with my amendment," Southerland said Tuesday in an interview. His plan was included in the three-year nutrition bill the chamber approved in September.
"Down where I grew up, able-bodied people do that which we believe God created them to do," Southerland said. "Work is a blessing, it's not a curse."
Southerland's appointment "says there are a lot of people from around this place who are very interested in the details of this bill," House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said in an interview. "So am I."
Fudge's addition to the conference committee is a sign that Democrats are serious about finding a solution, Lucas said. "We're going to get there, we're going to get there."
A 5 percent reduction in benefits unrelated to the agriculture debate takes effect later this week, as Congress allows a temporary spending boost included in the 2009 economic- stimulus law to lapse. Conflicts over food stamps illustrate how deeply divided Washington has become and how everything, even a traditionally less-partisan farm bill, has become part of a winner-take-all atmosphere, said Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.
"For Democrats, this is a part of the welfare state that remains popular. For conservatives, this is a symbol of excess and waste," he said. "Both sides want to make it a symbol of what each despises about the other."
It's also a frustration to the traditional farm and nutrition organizations that in the past have had a strong enough political coalition to get their programs through Congress. More than 250 agricultural groups wrote farm-panel members and leadership yesterday, urging a five-year law that keeps farming and food stamps together.
"Developing and adopting comprehensive farm legislation has been an effective, balanced arrangement for decades," wrote groups ranging from the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farmer group, to the Florida Watermelon Association and the Oregon Wheat Growers League.
Other differences to be negotiated between the House and Senate plans include whether to revamp dairy subsidies, payment restrictions and conservation requirements on crop insurance, the biggest U.S. farmer-aid program, and the replacement of about $5 billion in direct payments to farmers with greater protections against low prices and failed harvests.
Beyond leadership, House conferees also include appointees from its foreign affairs and ways & means committees, looking at international food aid and tax issues in the bill.