GOP farm bill puts SNAP savings into trade and horticulture programs

House Agriculture Committee chair Glenn Thompson would funnel $10 billion in food stamp cuts into an expansion of trade promotion and horticulture programs as part of the new farm bill, said Republican staff workers on Thursday. One of them called opponents of SNAP cuts “hunger weirdos” who “use poor people as props.”

Republican proposals to cut SNAP outlays by an estimated $27 billion over the next 10 years are a major dispute that has delayed progress on the farm bill for months. Diverting nutrition money into trade and horticulture stood in contrast to assurances by GOP staffers, which would still be accurate, that none of the savings would go into crop subsidies and crop insurance.

The money “stays within the subcommittee,” said the staff worker who criticized anti-hunger groups; the panel in charge of domestic nutrition programs also has jurisdiction over foreign food aid, trade promotion, and horticulture. “It’s all fluid,” the staffer said. Some $16 billion of SNAP savings would be used to restore program eligibility to people convicted of drug felonies and to lower the “benefits cliff” that SNAP recipients face when they move into higher-paying jobs.

“I don’t think any Democrat would vote for that [stuff],” said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat and prominent advocate of anti-hunger programs, when told of the plan to boost trade and horticulture at the expense of SNAP. Democrats have consistently opposed SNAP cuts.

Text of Thompson’s farm bill was to be released on Friday morning, with a committee vote on it set for May 23. House Republican staff workers, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the legislation in advance on Thursday.

Thompson’s legislation would increase crop subsidy and crop insurance spending by $50 to $53 billion — the precise figure is still being refined — or roughly one-third more than would be spent under current programs. A leading feature would be an increase of 10 to 20 percent in so-called reference prices for crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. Reference prices are the trigger for subsidy payments. Farm groups say they should be increased to offset the impact of inflation and rising production costs.

Higher farm spending would be offset by restricting the use of a $30 billion USDA reserve fund. Staff workers said the savings ought to be $6.5 to $10 billion a year, estimates based on the huge amounts that were spent from the reserve on trade war and pandemic relief for farmers. However, the amount is subject to an ongoing dispute with the Congressional Budget Office, which says the savings would be much smaller.

Thompson is working with the House Budget Committee to secure a larger figure, said a GOP staffer, who was “confident we will achieve the savings” to pay for the farm bill. It was an irony that an expansion of farm supports would be a result of shunning the largesse of recent years.

Staffers said repeatedly that the farm bill would be cost-neutral compared to current outlays because of the offsets obtained from limiting use of the reserve fund, part of the Commodity Credit Corp. The fund also pays farm subsidies.

Restrictions on the CCC would prevent the administration from using it for emergencies, such as the eruption of a renewed trade war with China. “We think the CCC is being used as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for a trade war,” said a House staffer. Limitations on use of the reserve fund would inspire Congress to write trade policy legislation, said the staffer.

The $10 billion that would be diverted from SNAP spending would be used to double the funding for two trade promotion programs, the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development Program, as well as for increased funding for specialty crop and horticulture programs and the repair of agricultural research facilities.

Asked about opposition to SNAP cuts, a Republican staff worker said “hunger weirdos” were fomenting hysteria to drive away support for Thompson’s bill. “They keep people dependent so they can keep their jobs. These are folks who use poor people as props. … They don’t want to help people now” and instead fight hypothetical reductions in SNAP benefits in the future, said the staffer.

The SNAP savings are almost beside the point compared to the policy at stake. Thompson would require future reviews of the costs of a healthy diet to be cost-neutral, unlike the 2021 Biden administration update that resulted in a $250 billion increase in SNAP benefits over 10 years. Senators including John Boozman of Arkansas, the senior Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, also want to return to cost-neutral reviews. The dispute has become a test point for conservatives who want to reduce the cost of public nutrition programs and Democrats who say SNAP helps millions of people get enough to eat.