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Food Stamp Debate Leaves Farmers in Limbo


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This is the time of year we should be enjoying harvest festivals, but farmers in Ohio's Second Congressional District don't have a lot to celebrate.

I grew up on a farm in Clermont County's Miami Township, so it's not difficult for me to tell when crops such as corn and soybeans are suffering because of drought. I've witnessed stunted crops in recent weeks while driving past fields in Clermont, Brown County, Adams County, Pike County, and Scioto County. I've talked with farm families and local officials who fret about the economic impact.

We all should be concerned, regardless of whether you live in an Adams County farmhouse, an apartment building in Cincinnati, or a suburban home in Warren County. Everybody needs food, and grocery store bills are likely to rise because of a poor harvest.

The impact could have far-reaching effects on Ohio farmers, manufacturers, and consumers.

Agriculture is the number one industry in Ohio. In addition to being consumed as food, crops such as corn and soybeans are used to make everything from hair-care products to engine oil.

Why am I telling you this? Because aside from feed, sunlight, rain, and fertilizer, Ohio's farmers need something else to get their goods to market. Since the end of the Great Depression and the days of the Dust Bowl, farmers have needed to keep an eye on Washington to see what Congress is doing for them -- or to them. At the moment, it's a bit of both.

Farmers in Ohio and the rest of America are anxiously waiting on their lawmakers to reach a consensus on a new five-year Farm Bill. The current one will expire September 30.

The business of farming is unique because of the unpredictability of the weather. The Farm Bill ensures we manage the risk for farmers so we don't lose our food supply. Can you imagine the national security implications if America were dependent on other countries for food?

The size and shape of the Farm Bill helps farmers figure out what to plant or how many head of cattle or hogs to keep in the feed lot. The particulars also help farmers estimate how much they should borrow and how much they can expect to deposit in the bank at the end of the year.

As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, I've spent much of the year working on a new Farm Bill. But it was announced Thursday, September 20, that no vote will be taken on the bill until after the November elections. I had urged my House colleagues to consider the Farm Bill on the floor before the week was up.

Sadly, the holdup in getting the latest version of the Farm Bill through Congress and into law has little to do with crops or cows. The main sticking point is what to do about the growth of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- commonly called food stamps.

The amount we're spending on food stamps is expected to balloon to $85 billion this year -- up from $19.8 billion in 2000. The SNAP program has grown from 19.1 million participants in 2002 to 44.7 million last year -- an increase of 134 percent. The reason is twofold: (1) The economic recession has left many people out of work, and they have turned to the government for help feeding their families; and (2) the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state governments have taken advantage of overly permissive standards (such as allowing college students who weren't truly needy to receive SNAP benefits).

Nobody in the United States should go hungry. I volunteer at a food bank and at an inner-city mission in Cincinnati, and I guarantee you that the need for SNAP is great. But so is the need for reforms to the program.

I'm the chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture, which oversees SNAP. Last year, I held a hearing to discuss the program -- including not only the good things it does, but also waste, fraud, and abuse.

I was shocked to learn that some states allow people who apply for SNAP to deduct from their income the cost of medical marijuana in determining eligibility for benefits. This is both a gross abuse of the intent of the program's medical cost deduction and a waste of tax dollars. Marijuana is illegal under federal law, and there is no reason the cost of buying it should be used to calculate SNAP benefits. So I offered an amendment to eliminate the marijuana deduction, and my amendment was passed by the committee.

By a bipartisan vote in July, the Agriculture Committee advanced a package of reforms for the whole House to consider. Changes to SNAP and farm programs in general would result in about $35 billion in savings by closing loopholes, revamping commodity programs, and significantly reducing waste, fraud, and abuse.

I also voted in committee to preserve $16 billion in cuts to SNAP over 10 years. These cuts would curtail waste in administering the program and rein in states with lax standards, but would not affect people who truly need assistance.

Some lawmakers think the cuts go too far, but others think we haven't cut enough. So now, the Farm Bill is languishing in the House.

If nothing is done, the provisions that benefit farmers could fade into the sunset -- but the provisions that have resulted in bloated and wasteful spending on the SNAP program would continue.

We all have a stake in the outcome. We have a responsibility to ensure that America has the safest and most stable food supply in the world.

Farmers in Ohio and other states deserve responsible policy -- in a timely manner -- from lawmakers in Washington.

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