Volunteers fill bags for a school lunch program. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta.)
Late Wednesday night, the House Agriculture Committee passed a comprehensive, $940 billion farm bill. This was a first step towards making a real, five-year bill law—something the last Congress failed to do, and something that, by all accounts, this Congress deems an absolute necessity.
But one central issue could derail the farm legislation once again: food stamp cuts. Republicans are demanding even deeper cuts than what they proposed last year, and Thursday morning on Capitol Hill, several House Democrats made it clear they are willing to let the farm bill die if it contains those steep cuts.
The bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee last night slashed $20.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, $4 billion more than what the committee proposed last year. These cuts would take away food stamps from nearly 2 million people, and several hundred thousand low-income children would stop receiving free school meals.
At a press conference Thursday morning, several prominent Democrats drew red lines around the cuts. “Lest anyone think that this [debate] is going quietly into the night, you have another thing coming,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro. “Maybe, and I can’t say for sure, maybe we’ll take a look at whether this bill can move at all.”
Representative Jim McGovern was more direct. “The $20.5 billion cut in SNAP is a poison pill. It means that we shouldn’t be supporting the farm bill,” he said.
The stakes are extremely high here. The agricultural community—from farmers to the multibillion-dollar industry players—badly wants a new farm bill, and powerful senators from rural states, in particular, are bent on enacting it. President Obama has repeatedly pressed Congress to pass one.
These threats from McGovern and DeLauro, who were joined by Representatives Marcia Fudge and Barbara Lee at Thursday’s event, carry real weight. The backdrop is that many conservatives oppose the House Agriculture committee bill in part because the SNAP cuts are too small—Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget calls for $135 billion in cuts to food stamps and for the program to be block-granted to the states.
Many far-right conservatives will likely oppose the farm bill for this reason, and for many other reasons—voting yes on a nearly trillion-dollar bill isn’t easy for them. That means Democrats will be needed to secure House passage, and if liberal members can mobilize enough colleagues to join them in steadfast opposition to the food stamp cuts, the farm bill might not pass. (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi did not return a request for comment about how she would instruct members on this issue.)