One of the biggest food fights in the upcoming farm bill won't be over commodities, but over food stamps.
While the legislation will set farm policy and impact food prices for the next five years, many forget that roughly 80 percent of the funding in the bill goes to providing food for the country's less fortunate. At the end of 2012, according to the USDA, there were nearly 48 million people on food stamps.
In the Senate Agriculture Committee Tuesday, lawmakers passed its version of the bill, while the House Agriculture Committee will begin marking up its bill Wednesday. The versions of the key legislation remain vastly different in how they handle the country's food assistance program, and will need to be reconciled before current regulations expire in September.
The Senate's legislation would make about $4 billion in reductions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, during the next decade. The House version would cut five times as much — $20 billion through the same time period.
The Senate version would save costs by eliminating a few pervasive loopholes in the program including restricting lottery winners from remaining enrolled and narrowing the parameters in which college students can apply for food stamps.
The Senate bill would also stop individuals from being able to use their benefits at liquor stores or tobacco depots.
Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has said that during a time when more people need food assistance, it is critical to make sure the program is not being abused.
The House bill would curb the number of people who are eligible for the program, which has doubled during the last few years in part because of President Barack Obama's stimulus program and in part because of the weak economy. House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has said the committee's conservative members won't pass a bill without heavy reductions to the program. Many Republicans believe lax standards are responsible for the ballooning growth of the program.
But some experts say the proposed House cuts are still short of what's necessary.
"When you are talking $4 billion in reductions out of $800 billion in the next decade, I wouldn't really call that a big act of fiscal responsibility," says Veronique De Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. "Even $20 billion out of more than $800 billion is really minor. That is a 2.5 percent reduction. That is nothing."
Democrats though are increasingly critical of the impact the reductions will have on the country's vulnerable populations.
"The cuts in both the Senate and House Farm bills are unconscionable and fly in the face of the long-standing, bipartisan tradition of protecting programs for low-income Americans," says Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn."The proposed House bill would force up to two million people off food stamps and over 200,000 kids off the school meal program."