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RIDDELL: Food-stamp fiasco in the farm bill

Congress can’t shuck responsibility for endless entitlements

- - Thursday, June 27, 2013

The most shocking aspect of the farm bill was not its stunning defeat in the U.S. House of Representatives last week or the Republican revolt against Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. It was that out of a nearly trillion-dollar bill, the only cut on which Republicans and Democrats could agree was to eliminate subsidies to people who don't farm.

In legislation so riddled with known fraud, indefensible price supports and waste, it's nearly incomprehensible to think that the only common ground reached was slashing $5 billion in annual direct payments to people who own farmland but don't live there or sow crops. That revision isn't low-hanging fruit — it's a no-brainer.

If we are ever to climb out of our $17 trillion national debt hole, Congress is going to have to do better — harder decisions and compromises will have to be made. Extensions of bills or maintaining the status quo because agreements can't be reached is just not acceptable. The House farm bill carried a mind-boggling 10-year price tag of $940 billion and was loaded with provisions that enlarged the nation's food-stamp program and benefited niche producers of crops such as Christmas trees and sushi rice.

Because 80 percent of the bill's spending — about $740 billion — is reserved for food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as it's called in Washington, trimming some of that fat would seem like a natural place to start. Republicans and Democrats agreed to cut $20.5 billion from the program over a decade. This "massive concession'' on the Democrats' part, as The Washington Post called it, amounted to a paltry 2.5 percent shave. That is a 2.5 percent reduction to a program that has increased in spending by about 100 percent since President Obama took office.

Getting a handle on surging costs will take real reform, such as addressing eligibility standards and systemic fraud, not cosmetic efforts that are statistically irrelevant, meant only to fool the mathematically challenged press corps.

The "poison pill" for the legislation was delivered in a Republican amendment that allowed states to require food-stamp recipients to either work or show they are looking for work. This stipulation was aimed merely at reinstating a previous rule. When Mr. Obama entered office, he suspended the program's work requirements in an effort to help those struggling. The move was supposed to expire three years ago, but, like most other Washington entitlements, has lived on.

The president requested in his next two budgets that the work-requirement suspension for food stamps be extended each year. Instead of waiting for Congress to act on his requests, the Department of Agriculture issued work-suspension waivers to 44 states and the District of Columbia, freeing them from implementing the food-stamp requirement.

Since absolving work requirements in 2008, food-stamp participation doubled among able-bodied adults within two years, according to the Congressional Research Service. With increased rolls comes increased spending. When Mr. Obama took office, food-stamp funding was roughly $40 billion a year. Last year, it was about $80 billion. Before the amendment, the bill in the House would have made these work waivers permanent. Republicans, by reinstating a work requirement, were trying to curb the program's surging growth, not lock it in for the next 10 years.

As our economy improves, so should the requirements on those seeking assistance. There needs to be some mechanism in the farm bill that allows for this, whether it's work requirements or something else. To better tackle pertinent policy and cost-cutting concerns, conservatives have proposed separating the bill into one that deals with food stamps, and another that deals with agriculture, so each would be evaluated on its own merit — a sound idea.

The House needs to start over and draft a new farm bill that addresses these issues. Lawmakers have until Sept. 30, when the current bill expires, to get something meaningful passed. However, it's more likely that they will punt — either by going to conference with the Senate to help enact their version of the bill (with even fewer cuts and a higher price tag), or by just temporarily sustaining most of the existing farm programs for another year through continuing resolutions. The House opted for that solution last fall.

The American people deserve better. They deserve a Congress that confronts — not hides from — politically tough issues to create sound policy. There is no better way to help reduce the nation's deficit than to reform a trillion-dollar bill. The time is now.

Kelly Riddell is a former Washington-based business and political reporter.