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Published September 19, 2011, 10:45 AM

Lucas: Cuts to nutrition program unlikely

WASHINGTON — House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said on Sept. 12 that he does not expect the 12-member congressional

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said on Sept. 12 that he does not expect the 12-member congressional

supercommittee trying to cut the federal deficit to make any cuts in federal nutrition programs, which means that the pressure for cuts in the Agriculture budget will fall on commodity, conservation and other programs with a more direct impact on farmers.

“That’s just my gut feeling,” Lucas told Agweek after he met with National Farmers Union members during their fly-in to meet with lawmakers.

The debt ceiling-deficit reduction bill established the super-committee to try to come up with a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years, but said that if the committee cannot come to agreement on a bill that Congress passes, military and domestic programs will be cut by a total of $1.2 trillion under a process known as sequestration. Under the debt-ceiling-deficit reduction bill Congress passed in late summer, food stamps, along with Social Security and most Medicare payments, are protected from cuts if the super-committee is unable to reach agreement and sequestration goes into effect.

The supercommittee has the authority to cut food stamps, along with other entitlement programs as it tries to cut the deficit, but Lucas said he thinks it will leave nutrition spending “untouched. That’s the way it is going.”

Lucas noted that nutrition programs, including the supplemental nutrition assistance program known as SNAP (formerly called food stamps), school lunch, the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC and commodity distribution programs now total 74 percent of the USDA budget. The commodity, conservation and crop insurance programs make up 18 percent, and all other programs including rural development and research comprise 8 percent of spending at USDA.

If nutrition programs are not cut, he noted, that “concentrates everything” on the rest of the USDA budget.

Avoiding sequestration

A key Senate Democratic aide said he thinks Lucas is right, but noted that the WIC program is definitely subject to cuts because it is an appropriated program rather than mandatory spending. Under sequestration, the Senate aide added, the Office of Management and Budget will determine what programs will be saved from cuts.

Lucas also said he thinks Congress will prefer to vote for a super-committee-developed bill rather than allow sequestration to go into effect.

“I believe the body (Congress) will stand on its head to avoid sequestration,” he said.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has said he thinks it will be difficult for the supercommittee to reach a deal and that sequestration is the more likely path forward.

Lucas said he is appealing to the

supercommittee members not to “ask us to do three, four times our part” and also to let the agriculture committees make the decisions.

‘Devil is in the details’

Lucas also noted that many people think the farm bill is an “a la carte bill” and that “you can cut out what you want.”

He has noted previously that cutting the direct payments program is a popular idea, but that ending that program could lead farmers to plant crops that conservationists have said are too intensive for some types of land.

“Trying to get across to folks that these programs are intertwined is a struggle,” he said.

“There are a lot of good concepts that come in short paragraphs, but the devil is in the details in (conceptualizing a program) that will be equitable to the whole country and create momentum to pass the bill,” he said.

Lucas also said his preference is to write a bill in normal order next year, but if the super-committee cuts too much, it might be necessary to write a bill this year to address the changes that would come from deep cuts.

He also said his staff still is trying to figure out exactly what programs besides food stamps would not be subject to cuts. The Conservation Reserve Program contracts probably would be safe because most of those are written on a multiyear basis, but “almost everything else would be cut,” he said.