WASHINGTON — The House is about to decide whether to cut nutrition programs for low-income people by $40 billion over the next 10 years.
That cut would be about twice as much as in the farm bill proposal that was defeated on the House floor earlier this summer.
Hard-line conservatives said at the time that they wanted deeper cuts in the program, which is commonly referred to as food stamps. Now they'll have a chance to vote for just that.
But the legislation, which is expected to come to the floor soon, poses a dilemma for members such as Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., who talks frequently about the need to tackle the federal budget deficit — but also expresses concern about protecting the poor.
Fortenberry represents his share of farmers interested in seeing the process move forward in order to allow reauthorization of traditional farm subsidies.
In an interview with The World-Herald this week, Fortenberry lamented the defeat of the earlier bill, which would have cut about $20 billion from food stamps, saying it struck the right balance.
“It asked the nutrition title to do some lifting and reform, it asked the farm policy support side to do some lifting and some reform, and I think it got it to a place where everybody was tightening the belt a little bit and giving and I think that was the right formula,” he said.
“Frankly, it's distressing to see these components of the traditional farm bill separated, which blows up any bipartisan support.”
House Republican leaders responded to the farm bill's defeat by separating food stamps from the traditional agricultural subsidy programs. The subsidies then were passed on their own.
Fortenberry said that fiscal restraint is necessary and noted that the food stamp program has about doubled since 2008, but he also stressed the importance of protecting the most vulnerable members of society. He pointed out that most people use food stamps as stopgap assistance for only about nine months.
“The problem, though, is it sends a message to people who are dealing with very vulnerable populations, that having this vote in isolation versus other reforms, it's not fair. You're hitting the poorest the hardest,” Fortenberry said. “Now if it was packaged with broader reforms ... you might see a way there. But by itself in isolation, it blows up the farm bill process and it does have an element of unfairness.”
He declined at this time to share how he plans to vote on the proposal, saying he wants to see how the process unfolds.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, suggested that Congress has to take dramatic action to put the brakes on a food stamp program that has exploded in recent years — thanks in part to the recession and in part to aggressive efforts by the government to sign up more recipients.
The Senate version of the farm bill includes only $4 billion in cuts over 10 years.