Sunday, January 26, 2014

Farm Bill to tighten rules for subsidies, food stamps; negotiators hope to file by Monday night

The compromise Farm Bill, which negotiators hope to file Monday night to get a House vote by Wednesday, will tighten eligibility for food stamps by scotching "what many see as an abusive scheme by states that distribute token amounts of low-income fuel assistance to food stamp households to help them gain higher benefits," David Rogers reports for Politico.

"Under this practice, known as 'heat-and-eat,' as little as $1 per year in fuel aid can be used to claim a higher utility deduction and leverage far more in monthly food stamp benefits, especially in high-cost cities like New York," Rogers explains. "By insisting that the fuel aid be no less than $20, the farm bill hopes to rein in such schemes. A portion of the resulting savings would then be plowed back into 10 pilot programs to test new ideas to help jobless beneficiaries receive training and find employment."

The move is expected to save more than $8 billion over the next 10 years, a little more than a third of the bill's $24 billion in savings. However, the estimate of savings from restructuring farm programs is open to question, because the last time they were estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, corn prices were much higher, Rogers reports.

"Nonetheless, the Farm Bill represents a landmark rewrite of commodity programs and should yield savings for taxpayers by ending the nearly 18-year-old system of direct cash subsidies to farmers," Rogers writes. "These payments, which cost more than $4 billion annually and are distributed at a fixed rate — whatever a farmer’s profits — will be replaced by two options linked to real market losses, not just the land."

Rogers describes the new crop-insurance programs in some detail, then reports that negotiators are still "skirmishing over livestock regulations and new, tighter caps on farm subsidies . . . two familiar issues, each with a long history and a populist cast." A proposed compromise would set a new limit of $125,000 per person or $250,000 for a couple, "but within that number there would be no fixed apportionments of what could be received" from the new crop-insurance programs "versus marketing loans. The bill would require subsidy recipients to be "actively engaged" in farming, but "the deal appears to kick that issue up to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to decide, but makes clear that farmers who own their land should automatically qualify."

The big unanswered question, at least for Rogers, is the future of country-of-origin labeling, "a battleground between independent cow-calf ranchers and the more centralized beef industry." Read his story.

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