USDA's Vilsack warns against "hatchet" cuts in U.S. food stamps


By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Lawmakers writing the finalversion of the new U.S. farm bill should reject the "hatchet"cuts that House Republicans want to make to food stamps for thepoor, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday.

Food stamps, which account for the bulk of spending in the$500 billion bill, are the make-or-break issue for the farmbill, which is already more than a year overdue.

"We are not going to be doing $40 billion, or even $20billion," Vilsack said at the Washington Ideas Forum, listingcuts proposed by the Republican-controlled House ofRepresentatives. At one point, Vilsack said "the House version... takes a hatchet" to food stamps.

The Democrat-run Senate offered $4.5 billion in cuts over 10years in its farm bill. The House proposed $39 billion, nearly10 times the Senate's figure, after conservative Republicanshelped defeat a bill that called for $20 billion in savings. TheWhite House has threatened to veto a bill with large cuts.

Farm lobbyists said there was little progress toward acompromise farm bill since the House and Senate formally openedtalks on Oct. 30. There was no impetus to resolve disputes suchas crop support rates that might become bargaining chips inworking out a food stamp agreement, they said.

Work also was handicapped by lack of a budget target, stillbeing negotiated by another select House-Senate panel.

"You can't make deals when you don't know what the numberis," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the small-farm groupNational Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Overall, the farm bill would save an estimated $23 billionif it follows the outlines of the Senate bill and $55 billion ifthe House bill is the template, the major difference being thesize of food stamp cuts. Both bills would end the $5billion-a-year "direct payment" subsidy and expand taxpayersubsidized crop insurance by $1 billion a year.

Roughly one in seven Americans receive food stamps to assistin purchasing basic foodstuffs. Enrollment has doubled since2004 and the cost of the program has nearly tripled.

Republicans such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor saythe program is an unaffordable burden while defenders say thehigh enrollment is a sign of a weak economic recovery.

"People get fixated on the (budget) number when what weshould be talking about is policy," said Vilsack.

He said the farm bill should require states to do a betterjob of helping food stamp recipients find jobs rather than cutoff benefits. The House bill would put stricter limits on howlong able-bodied adults without children can receive food stampsand end a provision that allows benefits to people with slightlylarger assets than the usual cut-off point.

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