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Food Stamps at Heart of ‘Unfinished’ Fight Over Farm Bill

August 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
U.S. farmers have suffered greatly from drought this year, but the farm bill, promising help, failed to pass Congress before summer recess. In contention: food stamps. Judy Woodruff speaks to Daniel Newhauser of Roll Call about Congress' unfinished business and whether they'll make any headway before November elections.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, we begin a series of reports on the unfinished business Congress left behind when it took off for its August recess.

Among the issues remaining on the table: whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, protecting the nation from cyber-attacks, helping the Postal Service’s fiscal picture, and a farm bill that would have provided emergency relief for drought-stricken areas.

More than half the counties in the continental U.S. shown here in red have been declared eligible for federal disaster relief because of the drought.

The farm bill is where we start tonight, with reporter Daniel Newhauser. He covers Congress for Roll Call.

And thank you for being here.

DANIEL NEWHAUSER, Roll Call: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, with such a clear need out there, why didn’t Congress get this done on the farm bill?

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: Well, the major problem with it is that 80 percent of this bill funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, otherwise known as food stamps.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eighty percent?

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: That is about $400 billion. Now, the House bill cuts about $16 billion. That is simply too much for Democrats and not enough for a lot of conservative Republicans, who want to cut more when this gets to the floor.

But I have been told by some Republican aides that if they brought this thing to the floor, the fight, the rift among the Republicans would be so devastating, that it would really hurt them electorally because it’s so close to the election in November.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you are saying there was a division? Tell us about the division among Republicans over this.


Yes, basically, it is a matter of philosophy. They do not agree with food stamps. They want to cut upwards of $30 billion. But the leaders knew that they could not cut that much in the original bill, or they would never be able to…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican leadership.

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: Exactly, or else they would never get Democratic support. And they know that they can’t pass it with Republican votes alone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, now, who is it on the Republican side who is opposing, who want deeper cuts in the food stamps?

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: Well, for instance, there is a congressman from Kansas named Tim Huelskamp. He has vowed to offer an amendment if this comes to the floor to cut $33 billion. That is what they would have cut in the Paul Ryan budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, a serious, a serious cut.

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: It’s very serious cut.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what you’re saying is there wasn’t unanimity among Republicans.

As you say, many of them realized they could not cut that much in order to…


JUDY WOODRUFF: So Speaker Boehner was facing a real division in his own…

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: He still is. He said — he was the first one to say last week at a press conference that he just doesn’t see 218 votes in the middle to pass this thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, was it — were food stamps the main — the only disagreement over this farm bill? There was agreement on the drought portion of it — I mean on the farm — the farm portion of it?

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: A lot of agreement.

And there’s some minor issues that would — they would probably be able to hash out. Direct payments to farmers and subsidies are always an issue, but really the food stamp issue was the major force in this not getting through Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So talk a little bit more, Daniel, about who is on which side on the food stamps. Is it the most conservative Republicans? Is it regional, geographic?

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: Well, every farm bill is regional to a certain extent. We have got a good example here in Iowa, a drought-ravaged state and a huge agricultural center.

We have got Steve King, unarguably one of the most conservative Republicans in the Republican Congress, and he has been for some time. He is in a very tough race against Christie Vilsack, not coincidentally, Tom Vilsack’s wife, the agriculture secretary.


DANIEL NEWHAUSER: That’s right. That’s right.

And he would object to SNAP cuts, or he would object to food stamps in any normal setting. But because his state is such an agricultural center and because the drought is so bad, he wants this thing passed. And he is being hit back home not just by Christie Vilsack, but by ag groups and by constituents. We are already seeing this sort of pressure to get this thing done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, you were telling us earlier today that the leadership, the Republican leadership, was looking at the kind of pressure that these members were going to face as they went home. What do they expect is going to happen over the — it is a five-week recess?

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: Five-week recess. It may take nothing short of a grassroots groundswell of constituent anger, pressure from ag groups to get this thing done when members come back.

The divisions have been that bad. They tried to pass a one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill, had to pull that last-minute because they didn’t have the votes for that either. They just barely squeaked through this drought aid package in the House, but the Senate refused to take it up because they in fact have passed a five-year farm bill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they were not willing to go along with these deeper — with the deeper food stamp…

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: Well, that wasn’t actually in the House drought aid package, but there would have been cuts to conservation programs and environmental programs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: …I don’t want to confuse this because that was a separate — it was a separate issue.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is seen at stake, in terms of looking at the farm communities around the country? And they are facing, as we just described, this terrible drought.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What — what do they face? What is at stake here?

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: Well, this legislation expires on September 30.

After that, they would pretty much lose subsidies, lose emergency disaster relief. And right now, the people who are being hit the hardest are livestock producers, cattle, sheep, and also tree producers, because of the drought, but also because of wildfires that have happened in this past year.

The emergency relief that was passed in the current farm bill actually expired in 2011. So there — they have no — they have nothing to fall back on right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just quickly, what are the prospects for when Congress comes back in September?

DANIEL NEWHAUSER: We will see. Really, like I said, it will take this big constituent anger and members really feeling like they are in danger for their jobs if they don’t pass something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Daniel Newhauser of Roll Call, thank you very much.