Try, try again.
With new leadership promises of floor time, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas is back with a retooled farm bill that sets a goal of $38 billion in 10-year savings while tilting more to the right by demanding greater cuts from food stamps.
In a short interview with POLITICO, the Republican chairman was decidedly cool toward President Barack Obama’s plan to revamp the Food for Peace program overseas. At the same, remembering the alfalfa fields of his own farm boyhood in Oklahoma, Lucas didn’t rule out using the Farm Bill debate to expand forage for the stressed bee population – a hot environmental cause that could help him win friends in the battles ahead on the House floor.
“We have honestly not gotten to that point in the discussions in the committee but I understand where you are coming from,” Lucas told POLITICO. “I am not opposed,” he added later, and in discussing his boyhood: “Yes I understand the importance of bees.”
Since Lucas’ last farm bill was shut down by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in December, the March 1 sequestration order has already begun cutting into commodity programs, and his $38 billion target assumes about $4 billion from these reductions.
An additional $14 billion would come now from further changes in basic farm programs and the remaining $20 billion from the nutrition title, chiefly food stamps.
Lucas stressed that he is still waiting for final scores from the Congressional Budget Office: “My staff are jumping from one foot to the next.” But his hope is to keep faith with promised assistance for livestock producers while finding the added savings he needs from trims elsewhere in the commodity and crop insurance titles.
For example, premium subsidies for the new Supplemental Coverage Option or SCO crop insurance plan could be pared back to 65 percent, from 70 percent last year.
“Livestock will be taken care of because of the drought situation,” Lucas told POLITICO. “We will not retreat on the livestock and still get to that $38 billion— unless the CBO surprises me again.”
But in real dollars — and as a proportion of his entire package — Lucas admits he is leaning more on food stamps. Last year the nutrition title contributed about $16.1 billion in savings, or less than half of the chairman’s mark. This year it is not just up by $4 billion, but also accounts for 53 percent of the Farm Bill savings and almost 60 percent of the new cuts — beyond those attributed to sequestration.
“The bottom line is: I sincerely believe this $20 billion won’t take a calorie off the plate of anyone who’s qualified,” Lucas told POLITICO. But he himself has criticized the outdated asset test that would be re-imposed under his draft bill, and he appears to have made a tactical decision just to try to get across the House floor.
As it is, he is sure to face criticism from the right for not going further — including tougher work requirements for those getting food stamp benefits for more than three successive months. At the same time, Lucas can’t expect to get a deal with the Senate and the White House without coming down on his numbers.
“Remember there are three tiers of issues here: committee issues, floor issues and there will be conference issues,” he said. “I just have to get to conference to sort out some issues.”
He said his $38 billion target owes a lot to Obama, and once the president set that 10-year target for agriculture savings in his own budget, Lucas wanted to match it.
“I was compelled to match his number. I’m saving $38 billion from the farm bill process,” Lucas said. “Yes he [Obama] is certainly focused on the side of the equation that raises the food not the consumption. I’m trying to be a little more equitable in my reform.”
As part of his partnership with his ranking Democrat, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, Lucas said his draft bill will include a new milk program that has been strongly opposed by most processors and Boehner. And while he hopes to mark up next week in his committee, the chairman said he fully expects the leadership will make him refight many of the same battles on the House floor.
“Whatever happens in committee we’re going to do it all over again on the floor and leadership will have an effect on that,” Lucas said. “We’ll have some very lively and loud debate in committee and even louder debate on the floor.”
“I work within the world that was crafted before I got here and try to do the best I can,” he said. And ultimately this is what makes it impossible, he said, for him to carry the food aid reforms promoted by Obama and George W, Bush before this administration.
“My challenge is in crafting this grand coalition to move this bill,” Lucas said. “A big part of the foreign food aid has been — down through the decades — the ability to say to people out in the countryside. `We’re using your product to meet these needs around the world. Yes, we’re paying for it with your dollars but we’re using your product.’”
“If we go to a system of buying the food overseas where it is most convenient and shipping it the closest way, from an accountant perspective I understand the logic. But I have to craft a coalition to keep the money in the account to make sure the food aid is there and no matter how efficient the delivery is, if we stop appropriating the money for the food, people are going to go hungry.”
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