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.”

Back-and-forth

Committee members then engaged in a predictable series of back-and-forth statements, hewing to party-line positions on all sorts of policies.

At the end of the hearing, California Rep. Joe Baca, voice rising with indignation, pointed out that “we help other countries and are willing to spend all kinds of money on other countries. And we haven’t cut (funds) to other countries. … We see other countries being fed and we’re not feeding out own people right here in the United States. Where are our priorities? They should be for the people right here.”

Baca — whose district contains more than 180,000 households that receive SNAP benefits — then made it even more personal. “Have any of you ever been in a situation where you needed help? Where you needed the SNAP program? Well, I was in that situation. I was struggling and couldn’t make it. My wife couldn’t make it and we had to feed my child. … Thank God we had food stamps.”

He urged the committee to consider such families before passing the proposals. “It’s easy to sit here and cut everybody else, but you aren’t in that damned situation.”

Up to that point, Baca’s barbed comments were accepted quietly by proponents of the SNAP cuts. But when he brought religion into the mix, Peterson’s earlier concerns about widening the partisan divide seemed prophetic.

“From a religious perspective, the Lord has always told to us to watch others and help others,” said Baca. “Love thy neighbor. Take care of that neighbor. If we truly believe in caring about others, we’ll do the right thing because God and the Lord and the churches have asked us.”

Immediately, Florida Rep. Steve Southerland wanted to debate theology. “I hear oftentimes reference to scripture in the Bible from (the Democrats). I cut my teeth on a church pew, all right? I grew up in a Christian home. My father never dropped us off at church, he parked the car and we went in.

“I’m proud to be a born-again Christian. I’m proud of the fact that He’s the Lord of my life. But I know this, sir: nowhere in scripture did God give the instruction to government over us as the individual. I’m just telling you.”

Baca and Southerland began to shout over each other as Lucas banged his gavel.

Baca: “He took care of all the people, as well! When He took the bread and divided the bread and gave bread to everyone who was going hungry…”

Lucas, still banging the gavel, called for order.

Southerland ended comments to Baca sharply, demanding he revisit scripture. “Read it, sir! Don’t take it out of context. He was speaking to individuals, not government.”

Rather than a roll call, the dead-on-arrival legislation was passed by voice vote — likely to provide committee members cover from unhappy constituents.