WASHINGTON — The House Agriculture Committee, aiming to clear a five-year farm bill that would reshape farm subsidies and reduce spending on food stamps, easily beat back challenges Wednesday from Democrats and Republicans.
The most contentious debate came on an amendment by some Democrats on the panel to block $16.5 billion in cuts to the food stamp program. The committee, led by Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, also preserved the bill's new program to stabilize milk supplies and defeated an attempt to repeal import restrictions on sugar.
Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, said he couldn't support the farm bill because of the food stamp cuts.
“These cuts will result in less food for hungry Americans, period,” McGovern said.
McGovern and other Democrats argued that an estimated three million people would be cut off from food stamps and 280,000 children would lose school lunch eligibility if the bill was approved.
Lucas said he represented a district that was depicted in John Steinbeck's “The Grapes of Wrath” and got out of college in Oklahoma at a time when farm prices and energy prices were depressed. He said he sincerely believed that all people who meet asset and income tests for the program will continue to receive food stamps.
“I'm very sensitive about trying to address good agriculture and good nutrition policy,” Lucas said.
The bill crafted by Lucas and Rep. Collin Peterson, of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the committee, takes aim at some state actions that expand eligibility and benefits for people who don't meet asset and income tests.
Last year, nearly 615,000 Oklahomans participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal name for the food stamp program. It is unclear how the proposed cuts would affect Oklahoma enrollment or benefits.
The program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is expected to cost nearly $800 billion over the next 10 years. The Senate farm bill passed last month would cut $4 billion from that 10-year cost. Some House Republicans noted Wednesday that the House bill target of $16.5 billion over 10 years was only about 2 percent of the total cost.
The Democratic amendment to eliminate the cuts failed 15 to 31.
The committee also defeated a Republican amendment by a vote of 13 to 33 that would have doubled the cuts to the food stamp program.
Members of the committee spent relatively little time debating provisions that will most affect the nation's farm operations. The bill eliminates the controversial direct payments that have been made to many farmers regardless of their planting decisions.
Lucas said Wednesday that he has defended the payments in the past despite heavy criticism because they were an effective and trade-compliant way for producers to manage their risk. But he said that the need to save money put the payments on the chopping block.
However, the bill creates new programs aimed at protecting farmers' income from shallow losses or multiyear crop price declines.