WASHINGTON – A month after the House rejected a $972 billion farm bill, Republican leaders are considering a plan that would severe a decades-old tie that has bound food stamps and farm subsidies.
The move is designed to attract support for the farm bill from conservatives like U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, who voted against it in June. Arkansas’ three other GOP House members voted for the bill.
Cotton said last week that he would reconsider his vote against the farm bill only if the food stamps provision were split from the rest of the proposal. He reiterated that Tuesday during an interview on Little Rock radio station KARN.
"One essential reform is splitting off food stamps," Cotton told talk show host Dave Elswick.
Cotton said that separating the nutrition and farm programs would allow each to be considered and reformed on its own merits. Otherwise, Arkansas farmers are having their important programs tied to the fate of the food stamp program, he said.
"I don’t think that is good policy," he said.
The farm bill was defeated on a 195-234 vote in June with most Democrats voting against the plan that would cut $20.5 billion from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, over the next decade. Most of the Republicans who opposed the bill wanted deeper cuts to SNAP.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that spending on SNAP would total $744 billion over the next decade. Farm subsidies and conservation programs would cost about $228 billion.
Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, said Tuesday he would reluctantly support his GOP leaders in splitting the bill if they determine that is needed to gain passage of the farm bill.
The bill, he noted, is of vital interest to Arkansas farmers. The current farm bill is set to expire in September. While agriculture policies would revert to those set in 1949, food stamps would continue unchanged.
Crawford expressed concerns that many lawmakers representing urban districts would have little reason to support farm subsidies without the accompanying nutrition programs.
"There is a small population that produces food and fiber. Quite frankly they feed all of us, yet we have a whole lot of folks who would forget that because their districts don’t include production farmers," he said.
Crawford, speaking Tuesday afternoon, said that Republican leaders were trying to determine if the split would attract the 218 votes needed to insure passage. Last month, 171 Republicans voted for the farm bill while 62 opposed it. Getting the additional support could be a "tall order," he suggested.
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.