An interim committee of the Idaho Legislature recently heard testimony from the offices of Idaho’s two congressmen, Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson, that gridlock in Washington, D.C., has put the food stamp program in the forefront of policy debates about the size of government.
At a meeting at the Capitol of the Natural Resources Committee, representatives for Simpson and Labrador told legislators that the Republican majority within the U.S. House of Representatives is divided on the issue of funding food stamps. While funding for the program is already in place for the year 2014, the uncertainty in Congress could impact how the program is funded in 2015 and beyond.
The food stamp program provides financial assistance for low income people for the purchase of food products. Created by Congress and President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the benefit program is funded with federal tax dollars and is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The benefits are then distributed by individual state governments, with both state and federal revenues used to fund the distribution systems.
John Revier, a spokesperson for Simpson, explained to the legislative committee that funding for the food stamp program for many years has been appropriated through what is commonly known as the farm bill.
“The farm bill is customarily a broad omnibus bill, a version of which has usually been passed with bipartisan support every five years,” Revier explained. “The farm bill consists of funding for crop insurance, commodities enhancement and conservation programs, along with funding for nutrition assistance, or food stamps. But the biggest budgetary item within the farm bill is the funding for food stamps.”
On June 20, the U.S. House defeated the farm bill, with Simpson voting in favor of the bill and Labrador voting against it.
Revier blamed the decrease in the number of representatives from rural regions of the country for the defeat of the farm bill, noting that legislators from more urban regions often do not understand agricultural issues adequately.
Idaho state Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, a member of the committee, asked Revier, “What is the climate like in the House of Representatives? Is it likely that a farm bill with food stamps funding will get passed?”
Revier declined to speculate, but noted that the situation “is forcing a reconsideration of how farm bills are structured. For now, funding for food stamps is threatened.”
Brad Griff, a spokesperson for Labrador, shed further light on the congressional dilemma. "There has been an alliance between Democrats and Republicans to support a farm bill every five years, but the wheels kind of fell off the bus on that coalition more recently,” he stated. “It really surprised the leadership in the House of Representatives. They really thought they’d get it passed.”
Griff noted that 80 percent of the money in the failed farm bill was for the funding of the food stamp program. “There is a large coalition in the House of Representatives that wants to split the funding of food stamps from the rest of the farm bill. Congressman Labrador is interested in fundamentally reforming the food stamps program because he wants to reduce people’s dependency on government.”
Idaho state Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, a member of the committee, asked Griff, “Is Congressman Labrador concerned that by rejecting the farm bill he might end up hurting farmers?”
Griff noted that after the initial farm bill’s failure, the House of Representatives passed a separate bill that will provide funding for crop insurance, commodities enhancement and conservation programs—programs that are specific to farmers—but left out the funding for food stamps.
“By separating the funding of food stamps, there is perhaps a better chance of fundamentally reforming the food stamps program. Congressman Labrador would definitely like to see less spending on nutrition programs (food stamps). He is fiscally conservative and wants to see less government dependency among the American people,” Griff said.
The U.S. Congress is expected to take up the matter of funding for food stamps, and agriculture-related programs, when it reconvenes in the fall following its August recess.