Washington Digest — House passes farm bill minus food stamps


WASHINGTON — After stripping food stamp funding, House Republicans last week passed a scaled-back farm bill that was praised by some conservatives but strongly criticized by advocates for the poor, other conservative activists and farm groups.

Republican leaders removed nutrition programs after a unified food stamp-farm subsidy bill failed to pass last month without the support of 62 conservative members of the GOP caucus. Most of them backed the pared-back bill.

“Transparent government won an important victory today,” said Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind. “Conservatives seized an opportunity to split the farm bill, a landmark reform that breaks the unholy alliance between food stamps and agriculture policy.”

House Democrats bitterly opposed the GOP approach, accusing Republicans of turning aside the needs of poor children and the elderly in favor of wealthy corporate farmers.

“We are not going to vote for a bill that sticks it to poor people,” said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.

By passing the bill, House Republicans said formal negotiations with the Senate can be held to produce a final bill that would renew federal agriculture policies. The Senate has already approved a farm bill to replace current law that expires in September.

Spending on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, increased from $37.6 billion in 2008 to $78.4 billion in 2012 as participation rose from 28.2 million to 46.6 million Americans, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

House Republicans proposed last month to cut food stamps by about $2 billion a year, a sum that was insufficient to conservatives and intolerable to liberals.

Farm groups — including the American Farm Bureau and National Farmers Union — voiced opposition to severing a four-decade-old tie that has bound nutrition and farm policy. They fear the split would break the broad coalition of urban and rural representatives that have traditionally backed the farm bill.

Conservative activists, who favored the split, still were outraged that the House bill failed to deliver additional cuts to farm subsidies.

“Taxpayers were stabbed in the back as the GOP rammed through an even heftier bill than the President requested,” said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union. “As a result, Americans concerned about higher deficits, rising food prices and corporate welfare can only watch as the hogs continue to be fed.”

The cost of federally subsidized crop insurance to taxpayers has skyrocketed in recent years, jumping from $4.6 billion in 2010 to $12 billion in 2012, according to a study commissioned by the Environmental Working Group.

The House bill was approved, 216-208. Reps. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, and Steve Womack, R-Rogers, voted for it.

Renewable energy programs facing deep cuts

The House approved a $30.4 billion spending bill for energy and water programs that includes deep cuts to renewable energy programs in the next fiscal year.

The bill, which passed 227-198, faces a veto threat largely over a plan to halve to $1 billion spending for the Department of Energy’s offices for electricity delivery, energy reliability, energy efficiency and renewable energy.

In issuing a veto threat, the White House said the bill drastically underfunds investments that would leave the United States at a competitive disadvantage in developing clean energy.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., who oversaw the drafting of the bill, said hard choices were needed given the fiscal reality facing the federal government.

“The bill places the highest priority on national defense, Army Corps of Engineers, and other activities on which the federal government must take the lead,” he said.

Cotton, Crawford, Griffin and Womack voted for the bill.

Senate balks at temporary fix for student loans

The Senate fell short of the 60 votes need to pass a temporary fix for college students who have seen the interest rate on subsidized student loans double this month to 6.8 percent.

Senate Democrats wanted to roll back the rate to 3.4 percent for the next year to buy additional time for Congress to agree on a permanent fix to how interest rates are set.

“It’s critical that we keep interest rates low on federal student loans, so more promising students can realize their dream of higher education,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Republicans objected to approving another short-term fix saying that a long-term solution is within reach if Democrats accept a plan similar to one proposed by President Barack Obama to tie the interest rates to the 10-year Treasury notes. The Senate passed a similar one-year extension a year ago to keep the rate at 3.4 percent.

The one-year extension proposal died on a procedural vote, 51-49. Sixty votes were needed. Reid, for parliamentary purposes, voted against the bill to allow him to bring the bill back to the Senate floor at a later date.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., voted for the bill. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., voted against it.