WASHINGTON – House Republicans pushed through legislation Thursday that would reauthorize farm policies without considering food stamps.
The bill cleared the House 216-208 with no Democrats in support and with no obvious path forward to reaching a final product with the Senate.
The Arkansas delegation voted in favor of the bill – including Rep. Tom Cotton of Dardanelle, one of 62 conservative Republicans who last month opposed the farm bill that came out of the Agriculture Committee.
Cotton opposed the earlier version because it did not cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known commonly as food stamps, as deeply as he preferred. The bill would have cut $20.5 billion from the nutrition program over the next decade.
"For 40 years, farm programs have been chained to the food-stamp program. We’ve now finally broken this needless link. Rather than a bloated, $940 billion bill that was 80 percent food stamps, we now have a farm bill focused squarely on farmers," Cotton said.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that spending on SNAP would total $744 billion over the next decade and farm subsidies and conservation programs would cost about $228 billion under the initial House bill.
Cotton last week said he would only consider voting in favor of a farm bill if the decades old tie that had bound food stamps and farm subsidies were severed.
The decision to drop nutrition provisions from the farm bill has been roundly opposed by farm groups including those in Arkansas.
"We are disappointed in House leadership for choosing to split the bill and repealing the permanent law status of the farm bill, which creates the possibility that we will never write a farm bill again," Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach said in a statement. "The decision by House leadership to pursue that path put members of the Arkansas delegation in a very difficult situation.
"We still have a long way to go to get to passage of a five-year farm bill. The challenge will be in conferencing the vastly different proposals from the Senate and the House. We are committed to work vigorously with our full delegation to work toward passage of a Farm Bill that provides the needed safety net that underpins Arkansas and American agriculture."
Mary Kay Thatcher, a farm policy specialist at the American Farm Bureau, questioned the wisdom of breaking the link between farm and nutrition programs.
"You’re looking at 435 members in the House, 25 percent of whom have zero farmers in their district. How does one go to the Hill and convince one of those members of Congress to support spending money for agriculture?" she said.
House Democrats bitterly complained about the down-sized bill that still fills more than 600 pages and was not available to read until Wednesday evening.
"We are not going to vote for a bill that sticks it to poor people," said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.
McGovern said he did not trust Republicans who claimed that the bill provides a way forward to negotiate a final farm and nutrition bill with the Senate.
"This is all about gutting the nutrition title. It’s all about going after Americans who are struggling," he said.
House Republicans criticized opposition from Democrats as politically driven.
"I regret that House Democrats chose to put politics ahead of farmers in this process," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
Cotton said he trusts Senate Democrats will support "speedy passage" of the House bill and not hold Arkansas farmers hostage to "Barack Obama’s wasteful food-stamp program."
The Heritage Foundation, the R Street Institute, Club for Growth and Taxpayers for Common Sense, issued statements in opposition to the House-approved bill.
"Rather than take advantage of the blank slate of a split bill to improve the bill’s operation or trim its cost, House Republicans have instead passed a bill that cuts $1 billion less from agriculture programs than the bill passed by Senate Democrats, and $25 billion less than the cuts proposed by the Obama administration," said R Street Senior Fellow Andrew Moylan.
Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, supported the decision by GOP leaders to split the bill.
"This is not a perfect bill, nor is this approach my first choice. However, more than anything Arkansas must have a farm bill in place," Crawford said. "Passage of this measure puts us one step closer in getting to conference with the Senate, where I hope to continue to influence the debate in a way that represents our state’s best interests."
Reps. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, and Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, said they supported passage of the bill as a step toward providing Arkansas farmers and ranchers some security.
"Agriculture is the backbone of Arkansas’ economy and our farmers shouldn’t suffer because of Washington’s dysfunction," Womack said.