By Bryan Jackson
Within four weeks of taking office as congressman for New York's 27th district, Rep. Chris Collins found himself voting on the nation's contentious debt ceiling extension. Three weeks after that, his sequester vote was in, and just a few weeks later, it was budget time.
So, it's no stretch to say Collins', and the other newly elected representatives', first five weeks in office have been more than busy, which he wouldn't have had any other way.
"We were thrown in the middle of the ocean (so) you'd better swim," Collins said in an interview with the Courier when he was in Warsaw on Thursday, May 30. "I think that's actually the best thing you can do."
With the help of New York's other congressional members and a mentorship program that pairs incoming representatives with veteran ones, Collins has navigated the often hectic beginning weeks of his term and has started settling into his position.
Collins serves on the House Committee on Small Business and chairs its Subcommittee on Health and Technology. In addition, Collins is a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, which puts him in a position to influence agricultural policies, a responsibility he felt was crucial, considering the constituents he represents.
"I asked to be on (the House Agriculture Committee) because I have one of the most agricultural districts in the country, or at least in New York so for me to serve the constituents of the 27th district, it was critical -- especially for the needs of the farmer -- that I get on (the committee), and I did," he said.
One specific piece of legislation crucial to this area -- and the country as a whole -- is an updated farm bill.
In mid-May, the House Ag Committee voted to move the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, more commonly known as the farm bill, to the House floor. The House and Senate have tried, and failed, for the last three years to settle on a new farm bill, which covers everything from food stamps to farm subsidies to investment in farmers markets.
The $940 billion House version of the farm bill would save $30 billion to $40 billion, depending on the analysis over 10 years, with most of the savings -- about $20.5 billion, according to Reuters and The New York Times -- coming from cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.
The Senate version would save about $24 billion over 10 years, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), with about $4 billion in savings coming from cuts to food stamps.
Food stamps proved a major obstacle during the failed negotiations last year, and when asked what challenges could arise this time around, Collins was blunt.
"Food stamps, food stamps, food stamps and food stamps," he said. "The SNAP program is the controversial piece."
Bipartisan agreement would be crucial for the farm bill's passage, Collins said, and despite the coming food-stamp fight, he remained optimistic, partly due to how he said the committee achieved the savings.
"It's a miniscule 3 percent cut, if that, and it's not a cut in benefits; it's a tightening down of eligibility, where every state sets their own eligibility," he said. "Since it's 100 percent paid for by the federal government, there are a lot of states that set the eligibility as loose as they can because they feel that every dollar that comes out of Washington into their state helps their state. And you know what? It does --- but at a cost to the taxpayer."
Even though food stamps is poised to play the pivotal role, Collins, who serves on the ag committee's Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee, pointed to another aspect that could specifically benefit the 27th district.
"My goal when they asked me if I could ask for one thing, what would it be, I said an increase, and I know that's an audacious statement in this day and age, an increase, if we could get it, in the (research and development) grant funding for the land-grant universities like Cornell, and we got it," Collins said. Citing his work with Cornell has helped him realize the importance of crop research. "It was $450 (million) in the last part, and we got it up to $600 (million). That was a huge win -- a huge win -- in this economic time, so I'm very proud of that."