WHAT OTHERS SAY: Last-ditch farm bill talks must treat the poor fairly

Thursday, December 5, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Congressional negotiators are back at work this week, trying to find common ground on a farm bill. It’s a huge and complicated bundle of legislation that has — no surprise — hit a wall over clashing political and policy visions.

While reports indicate conferees appear close to agreement on many parts of the legislation, the largest gap — and the biggest battle — remains over feeding the poor.

Forty-seven million of the neediest Americans qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The economic malaise has made matters worse, and just a month ago SNAP payments took a hit when an emergency provision, passed in 2009, expired. That means a family of four is getting $36 less each month to bring milk, bread, eggs and other staples into their kitchens.

Raw-meat extremists in the House would squeeze the needy — or many of them — even more.

The Senate bill would trim $3.9 billion from nutrition programs over the next 10 years. The House bill would jettison 10 times that, or $39 billion, about 5 percent of projected spending over 10 years, with a major emphasis on tightening eligibility requirements. GOP forces want to ensure that able-bodied but unemployed Americans who get food stamps get kicked off the rolls. The Democrats tend to believe, correctly, that aid to the poor has been cut enough already; the Senate proposal finds savings in administrative efficiencies and other areas that have less of an effect on daily lives. Both sides want to remove abusers.

Among other hurdles, the Senate bill would reauthorize nutrition programs for five years; the House plan expires in three, in a likely new attempt to separate nutrition from other farm programs, as legislators tried and fortunately failed to do earlier this year.

Smaller differences abound. The House version would enhance flood protection for agricultural interests in the Missouri River basin; the Senate’s does not. The Senate proposes an intriguing pilot project to distribute protein-rich legumes to schools. The House so far is silent on the matter.

The good news: Bipartisan sentiment, in a time of relative agricultural prosperity, will end certain direct crop payments to farmers. And both bills expand sometimes questionable crop-insurance policies, though significant differences in that area and among various commodity programs have yet to be hashed out.

The Congressional Budget Office projects that all farm-bill programs will amount to more than $900 billion over 10 years. The nutrition programs account for nearly 80 percent of the total. Yes, that’s real money. But it also addresses real need for the nation’s poor.

Lead negotiators, who are expected to meet today, have expressed optimism that a bill can be completed on deadline. Let’s hope they are right.

If compromise proves elusive, Congress has a fallback position: another short-term extension. In that case, SNAP funding would remain at current levels, and a new bill could get put off till after the next elections.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has warned that absent a new farm bill, he would be forced to revert to a 1949 law that would cause prices for milk and other prices to skyrocket in January.

“Milk. Butter. Cheese. Eventually, rice. Corn. Wheat products,” Vilsack said recently in Kansas City. “There’s no question that’s going to happen. The law requires me to do that.”

At some point, congressional obstructionists need to recognize the consequences of their actions. The farm and nutrition bill, which affects every American, would be a good place to start.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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