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Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Thad Cochran, R-Miss., defended federal nutrition programs Tuesday to a group of agricultural journalists, and in the process demonstrated why dealing with food stamps may be harder this year than in 2012 when it comes to writing a farm bill.
Cochran told the North American Agricultural Journalists that food stamps—formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—should stay in the farm bill rather than be put in a separate bill, as some tea-party House Republicans have proposed.
“[Food stamps] should continue to be included purely from a political perspective. It helps get the farm bill passed,” Cochran said.
He went on to defend federal nutrition programs, including food stamps and subsidized school meals. “I come from a state where we have higher-percentage participation [than the national average]. It is part of my representation of the state that I make sure that those interests get represented,” Cochran said.
“I have never had to apologize in Mississippi for supporting it,” he said, referring to food stamps.
Those are rare words from a Republican these days. But Cochran is an old-school Southern Republican who has long recognized that his and other Southern states with the highest rates of poverty in the country need food assistance as much as they need cotton, rice, and peanut subsidies. Midwestern Republicans supported food stamps because the program led to an increase in food sales.
That changed in the last Congress. Some House Republicans, often from the rural Midwest, began proposing putting food stamps—which make up more than 70 percent of the Agriculture Department budget—into a separate bill. This would be a way to reduce food-stamp spending or get the program turned over to the states. These members seem to have forgotten that Congress created food stamps as part of the farm bill in the 1960s, when the declining rural population translated into fewer rural representatives in the House and fewer votes for the farm bill, and that the number of rural representatives continues to decline.
The number of people on food stamps has risen above 47 million during the Obama administration, and Republicans have noted that the numbers have not gone down much even as the economy has improved. They want to make it harder for people to qualify for the program, and both the farm bills passed by the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee in 2012 included cuts to SNAP.
Cochran has shown no enthusiasm for those cuts, and on Tuesday he said only that there would need to be “consensus” on any proposal to trim the program.
That the top Republican on the Agriculture Committee takes this view has to be good news for Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who has to try to forge that consensus. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the former ranking member, has long been a defender of food stamps, but this year he has issued a proposal that would cut $36 billion from the program over 10 years.
Stabenow told the agricultural journalists that there is “not a majority in the Senate that would vote to change eligibility standards or the benefit levels.” She said she looks at SNAP as “disaster aid for families,” and she noted that the Congressional Budget Office projects participation to go down as the economy improves.
The participation in food stamps appears to remain higher than anticipated, however, because wage rates are so low. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has suggested that the way to resolve the problem is to help food-stamp beneficiaries improve their skills and get better jobs.
Meanwhile, House Republicans press for cuts and most Democrats resist. House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he has told his panel’s chairman, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., that he wants to be part of any decision-making on food-stamp cuts. Peterson also defended food stamps with a statement that is sure to raise hackles in farm circles: “There is less fraud in food stamps than in any government program. There is five times as much fraud in crop insurance than in food stamps.”
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, who spoke to the journalists in Lucas’s absence, said he has told House conservatives that they should keep food stamps in the farm bill because that is the only way a bill with reforms will get to the president’s desk. He also said that the farm bill will not pass on Republican votes alone and will need the support of urban Democrats.
Conaway, who wants a five-year farm bill passed, said he has told his colleagues to think, “Is this a theater moment or a legislative moment?” The answer may depend on how much Cochran and the House conservatives influence each other.
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.