IT has been a year since Congress finally passed the farm bill, and it seems like the same issues that plagued the farm bill debate are surfacing again as Congress tackles the budget and committees begin to set up priorities.
In a letter, nearly 400 organizations representing the U.S. agriculture, nutrition, conservation and crop insurance sectors, among others, urged congressional budget leaders to reject cuts to the 2014 farm bill.
"The 2014 farm bill required over three years of debate in both chambers of Congress and ultimately ended with the consolidation of over 100 programs and cuts to mandatory spending across many titles, including the elimination of the direct payment program," the letter, sent to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House budget committees, noted. "These cuts came in addition to those already in effect due to sequestration."
The farm bill was touted as contributing $23 billion in "savings" (i.e., less spending) over 10 years when including sequestration. However, lower commodity prices led the Congressional Budget Office to estimate that $5 billion more will be handed out to crop producers who participate in the Price Loss Coverage and Agriculture Risk Coverage farm safety net programs.
Farmers who testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee Feb. 24 continued to call crop insurance the "cornerstone" of risk management.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack again had to defend the crop insurance cuts proposed in President Barack Obama's budget. Vilsack said a reason behind the proposed changes is the need to find additional savings due to the higher projected payouts for the commodity title's safety net programs.
In his opening statement at an agriculture budget hearing, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee, said he opposes the Administration's 17% cut in crop insurance funding and agrees with House Agriculture Committee chairman Mike Conaway's (R., Texas) assertion that the rules of the farm bill "not be changed," especially through the appropriations process.
Another major topic during the farm bill negotiations was spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Conaway has made it a top priority to conduct a full review of SNAP, which he said has "become the second-largest federal welfare program, quadrupling in spending since 2001."
Currently, 46.3 million people receive assistance through SNAP, with an average benefit of $127.53 per month. Annual costs and enrollment nearly doubled in the wake of the 2008-09 recession. Enrollment peaked at 47.8 million in December 2012.
Conaway held his first hearing on SNAP Feb. 25, followed by a Feb. 26 nutrition subcommittee hearing, both of which hosted witnesses to provide more insight on characteristics and dynamics of current SNAP recipients.
In both hearings, nutrition subcommittee ranking member Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), who vocally opposed attempts to slash nutrition funding during the farm bill debate, said he was surprised that the first top-to-bottom review is on SNAP funding, because farm support is expected to rise, while SNAP participation and funding are projected to decrease.
Conaway explained that looking at ways to get the policies right within SNAP is a "big deal."