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By Casey Wooten
President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget, which cuts USDA funding by 21 percent and the food stamp program by $193 billion over 10 years, landed on Capitol Hill with a dull thud.
The White House’s budget would also cut crop insurance payments by more than $29 billion over a decade, reduce rural development funding and eliminate some trade programs, according to the White House’s “greenbook” budget proposal released May 23.
Senate Agriculture Committee members and other farm-state lawmakers criticized the planned cuts to major USDA programs, saying now was not the time to pull federal aid from the farm economy.
“We’re going through a pretty rough patch all throughout agriculture and the farm programs are designed to be of help when the help is needed, like crop insurance,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said.
The administration’s latest release builds on Trump’s “skinny budget” proposal released in March that cut the Agriculture Department’s discretionary spending to $17.9 billion, a decline of $4.7 billion, or 21 percent compared to 2017 enacted levels. The expanded budget proposal also covers spending that would be mandated by legislation, such as crop insurance programs and crop subsidies authorized by the farm bill.
In total, the cuts would mean a reduction of about 5,200 employees at USDA, or about 5.5 percent of the total workforce, with the Farm Service Agency and rural development programs taking the biggest hit, acting USDA Deputy Secretary Michael Young said during a conference call with reporters May 23.
In the same call, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue echoed his past statements on USDA budget cuts, saying that his time as Georgia governor has prepared him to do “more with less.”
“When times are tough we just dig down and do more, and that’s what we’ll do here,” Perdue said.
Perdue—who has been in office for about a month—is set to speak before the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Agriculture May 24.
The budget proposal’s biggest USDA-related cuts would come to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as the food stamp program. The administration would achieve $193 billion in savings though tightening work requirements and block-granting funds to the states, Young said.
About 43 million Americans are enrolled in the program, up sharply following the 2008 recession. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters May 22 that the tougher requirements for SNAP are designed to reduce the rolls from their highs during the economic downturn.
“We do have an able-bodied work requirement,” Mulvaney said. “If you don’t have any dependent children and you’re an able-bodied adult, we start to phase in that requirement.”
The Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center, a top advocacy group for SNAP, said in a May 22 statement that the nutrition cuts would impact the most vulnerable Americans.
“Those harmed will be children, seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and adults struggling with low wages, temporary joblessness and involuntary part-time work—SNAP’s beneficiaries,” the statement said.
Roberts also said block granting SNAP funds to the states is likely a non-starter on Capitol Hill, where any farm bill would need 60 votes and buy-in from a few Democrats to pass the Senate.
“We won’t get the votes,” he said. “So we’ll be sitting there a year from now and you’re going to be asking me: ‘Where is the farm bill?’ ”
House Republicans split SNAP provisions from crop subsidy provisions in the 2014 farm bill. The move delayed the bill’s passage, and the Senate reunited the provisions in the measure that ultimately cleared Congress.
The proposal targets crops insurance programs, limiting premium subsidies to $40,000 and saving more than $16 billion over a decade. The budget would also limit the popular harvest price option for crop insurance, generating another $11.9 billion in savings.
House Agriculture Committee member Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) said in a statement that the cuts to USDA programs “don’t fully consider the state of rural economies.”
The proposal would also reduce the income cap for crop insurance premium subsidies and several other safety net provisions from $900,000 to $500,000 in adjusted gross income.
“By shredding our farm safety net, slashing critical agricultural research and conservation initiatives, and hobbling our access to foreign markets, this budget is a blueprint for how to make already difficult times in rural America even worse,” Ron Moore, American Soybean Association president, said in a statement.
Also eliminated is the Agriculture Department’s $498 million loan and grant program for rural waste water projects and the direct home loan program for single-family housing, which provides financing assistance to low-income rural residents.
The budget would also eliminate the Agriculture Department’s Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program, which work to open up and promote foreign markets for U.S. agriculture goods.
A White House budget proposal don’t carry much legislative weight and is generally seen as an outline of the administration’s policy positions. The latest proposal has already received push-back from lawmakers, who are looking to their budget committees for guidance on spending.
Roberts told reporters May 22 that, after a year of damaging weather across American farmland, it was unlikely Republicans would go along with cuts to farm safety net programs.
“We’ve had a freeze, we’ve had a prairie fire, we’ve had another freeze, we’ve lost 40 percent of our wheat crop, and you’re telling me there’s going to be large cuts to crop insurance? Come on,” Roberts said.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) has pressed the administration to preserve funding for agriculture programs in recent weeks but took a more neutral tone in a May 23 statement.
“As we debate the budget and the next farm bill, we will fight to ensure farmers have a strong safety net so this key segment of our economy can weather current hard times and continue to provide all Americans with safe, affordable food,” Conaway and Roberts said in a joint statement.
The American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union also opposed the cuts.
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said that the cuts would make it more difficult for Congress to craft the next farm bill, due in late 2018.
“In the last farm bill, we passed bipartisan reforms that saved taxpayers billions more than expected,” Stabenow said in a statement. “If enacted, this proposal would make it nearly impossible for Congress to pass a new Farm Bill and provide farmers, families, and rural communities with the certainty and support they need.”
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