Food stamps, subsidies knotty issues as U.S. farm talks drag on

Reuters

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Time is quickly running outto write a new $500 billion U.S. farm policy this year and oneof the biggest problems facing the four key negotiators on theproject is how much to cut spending on food stamps for the poor.

Without an agreement by the end of this week it may beimpossible to enact a new farm law this year. Congress is morethan a year behind schedule in replacing the now-expired 2008law; it adjourns for the year in mid-December.

The make-or-break issue for negotiators continues to be thesize of cuts in food stamps.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives proposed$39 billion in savings over a decade by tightening eligibilityrules. That is nearly 10 times the savings backed by theDemocrat-run Senate.

"We talked about it some," Colin Peterson, the top Democraton the House Agriculture Committee, told reporters as the "bigfour" negotiators - the leaders of the Senate and HouseAgriculture committees - took a midday break.

There are disputes over crop and dairy subsidies as well.The Senate says the House would set target prices so high theywould override the marketplace and the House says the newrevenue protection system supported by the Senate is skewedtoward the corn and soybean growers in the Midwest whiledisadvantaging those who grow wheat, rice and peanuts.

"The commodity title and SNAP (food stamps) are the twoissues," said Peterson.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas brushed pastreporters, responding only, "Having fun, having fun" when askedabout progress. Late Wednesday, Lucas and the other negotiatorssaid talks were moving in the right direction.

Peterson said the new bill would not repeal a U.S. law thatrequires packages of beef, pork, lamb and poultry to carry alabel listing the country where the animals were born, raisedand slaughtered.

Canada and Mexico won a World Trade Organization decisionagainst the first set of U.S. rules on "country of origin"labeling for meat. They are now challenging the current set,unveiled earlier this year.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor spearheaded the plan forsweeping change to food stamps, formally named the SupplementalNutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). With nearly one in sevenAmericans currently receiving aid, Cantor said the program wasan unaffordable burden on middle-class Americans.

Democrats voted en bloc against the Republican cuts and theWhite House has threatened to veto a farm bill that contains"unfair" cuts.

On Nov. 1 SNAP recipients saw a $5 billion cut in benefits,or roughly 7 percent per person, when part of the 2009 economicstimulus package expired.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank,said this week that SNAP enrollment rose because of the 2008-09recession and high jobless rates.

It said food stamp costs are certain to fall during 2014 andwarned that additional large cuts "would make life harder fortens of millions of Americans."

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