At long last, the House Tuesday afternoon opened debate on the 2013 Farm Bill. Committee leaders Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Collin Peterson, D-Minn., provided opening comments in support of the bill, foreshadowing debate to come regarding Supplemental Nutrition Assistance and crop insurance reforms.
Though more extensive debate will continue Wednesday, ag subcommittee and committee members took turns addressing issues related to the bill, many pointing out the hot topics: nutrition spending, dairy reforms, sugar policy and crop insurance.
Despite Lucas' comments late last week that floor discussion wouldn't likely move forward if the required votes weren't available, both Peterson and Lucas took the floor, stressing that the bill represented a bipartisan compromise.
Lucas acknowledged both the work it took to prep the bill, and the work it will take to get it passed.
"I will work with all of you to try to improve this draft that attempts to produce a safety net that is workable, that is efficient, both for rural America and producers. But also for consumers," Lucas said. He pushed the potential for an "open and fair debate."
Legislators took note, bringing forth concerns that ran the gamut of Farm Bill provisions, though SNAP reform seemed to stand out as a concern that could be difficult to overcome.
Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said though he normally supports farm legislation, the SNAP cuts in the bill are "disappointing."
"It's a shame that we could not consider the Farm Bill on its merits without undermining its credibility with what we clearly believe are not reforms -- not the elimination of waste, fraud and abuse," Hoyer noted. "But cutting out assistance for hungry people is neither fraud, nor waste, nor abuse. Well, it may be abuse."
Hoyer said the Senate was able to clean up the SNAP program with moderate reforms, and in contrast the House bill takes the "wrong approach" on cuts to SNAP.
"Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless. That's not a political policy, that's a moral policy – our faiths teach us that," Hoyer said.
But in closing comments, Lucas attempted to clarify that nutrition spending cuts set forth in the bill were largely the result of a clean-up operation.
"The committee tried to achieve savings in a way that would not deny an individual who was qualified under present law by income or assets from receiving help," he said. "We just simply say in the committee draft that … everyone needs to show they qualify. And we'll help you."
Lucas explained that state programs which provide as little as $1 in energy assistance can qualify recipients for a month's worth of food. Under the draft, that figure would rise from $1 to $20.
"Be good legislators, be thoughtful legislators," Lucas urged.
While the leaders and committee members made opening comments, the House Committee on Rules was at work whittling the number of amendments that can be considered to a manageable number. Nearly 230 were filed in total. Debate continues Wednesday.