The House Agriculture Committee passed the Agricultural Reconciliation Act of 2012 after 90 minutes of heated rhetoric, grandstanding and warnings that the budget cut proposals were a threat to the committee’s much-touted bipartisanship.

In March, the House Budget Resolution passed, requiring some $33 billion worth of agriculture cuts over 10 years. The charged atmosphere at Wednesday’s hearing was assured when committee-controlling Republicans proposed that nutrition programs — chiefly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) — bear the full brunt of those required cuts. Nutrition program spending comprises nearly 80 percent of agricultural spending.

The committee’s majority members were put on the defensive immediately by opportunistic Democrats who repeatedly claimed the proposals show harsh disregard for the hungry and poor and would knock children off school meal programs. Republicans insisted that none of the recommendations would prevent families in legitimate need from food assistance.  

At the hearing’s outset, Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, committee chairman, laid out the thinking behind making the nutrition program cuts.

“Over the past 10 years, the cost of SNAP has nearly tripled — increasing by 270 percent. The cuts we are proposing today cut only 4 percent over the next 10 years. We’ll do that in a number of ways.”

Among those ways:

Lucas charged that states can make “nominal payments to households so that they get an income deduction to help them receive a higher amount in SNAP benefits. In practice, that means that states can game the system by sending a $1 check which can trigger an increase of up to $130 in SNAP benefits.”

  • Ensure that only cash assistance triggers SNAP eligibility, which will save $11.7 billion over 10 years. 

“Many states have implemented categorical eligibility for SNAP, which means that any household who benefits from a low-income assistance program is automatically eligible for SNAP benefits,” said Lucas. “Some of these benefits can be as simple as providing a household with a pamphlet or access to a 1-800 number hotline. When states implement categorical eligibility, these households do not need to meet SNAP asset or gross income tests.”

  • Do away with $48 million worth of yearly bonuses to states for improving SNAP program efficiency. That will save $480 million over a decade.
  • Reform funding of Employment and Training (E&T) programs under SNAP.

“Federal formula grants help cover the costs of these initiatives,” said Lucas. “However, USDA also provides a 50/50 cost share benefit when states spend more than their federal grant on these E&T programs.  By maintaining the federal grant but cutting the 50/50 cost share, we can save $3.1 billion over 10 years, while ensuring that SNAP participants can still access training resources.”

  • Eliminate inflation indexing for “nutrition education” for SNAP participants to save $546 million over 10 years.
  • Save $5.9 billion by “ending an artificial increase in benefits from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” 

“We’re closing loopholes, reducing waste and abuse, and increasing the integrity of the program by ensuring SNAP serves only those households who qualify for the program,” said Lucas. “There is no denying that SNAP provides important support for many Americans.  That’s why it’s important that we ensure the integrity of this program.”

Predicting the rancor to come, the committee’s ranking member, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, wanted “a short and abrupt conclusion” to the hearing. He also wasn’t shy in expressing dislike of the House Budget Committee process and its unwillingness to touch the massive defense budget while insisting on cuts in agriculture.

“It’s often said that the Agriculture Committee is the least partisan of all the Congressional committees,” said Peterson. “We have a bipartisan tradition of being reasonable and a commitment to working together in the best interests of our constituents. I still think that’s true — but today, I think, is somewhat of an exception.

“In fact, I would contend this entire process is a waste of time because it doesn’t mean anything. The Senate has not agreed to any kind of reconciliation and … most certainly will not touch this bill.

“So, this proposal before us is not serious. You can’t have a serious conversation about getting the budget under control when you take large items like defense off the table, which is really why we’re here. Taking a meat ax to nutrition programs that feed millions of working families in an effort to avoid defense cuts, is not a serious way to achieve deficit reduction.

“It’s no wonder nobody likes Congress.”

Peterson said he understood why Lucas needed to “engage in this political exercise. I just caution that if we continue down the path before us today it will be far more difficult (to pass a farm bill). So, the best thing is to just kind of get by this — this isn’t going to mean anything anyway.”