Politics & Government

House farm spending bill hits California growers, poor

WASHINGTON — California farmers and the poor get nicked in a slimmed-down farm spending bill whose expected approval this week foreshadows harder choices to come.

An Agriculture Department research facility in the rural Kern County town of Shafter would close. Supplemental nutrition and emergency food aid would shrink. Some farmland conservation dollars would dry up.

All told, the Republican-controlled House is poised to cut so-called discretionary spending by 13 percent. These cuts aren't to crop subsidies, but to myriad other Agriculture Department and related programs that lawmakers insist on shaving for the sake of the deficit.

"We are facing unprecedented fiscal challenges in our nation," Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., explained Wednesday. "We have to stop spending money we don't have."

California's urban and rural residents alike have a big stake in this debate and the next one that will follow when Congress takes up a broader farm bill.

First up, this week, is House approval of a $125 billion agriculture spending package for fiscal 2012. Of this, $17 billion is the discretionary spending slated to take the biggest hit.

Discretionary spending includes research grants, like those supporting the University of California's viticultural experts. It includes rural grants, like the $1 million provided last month to line irrigation canals near Firebaugh, and it includes the kind of overseas marketing aid annually provided groups like the California Walnut Commission.

Most of the bill, $108 billion, is called mandatory spending because it rises and falls according to predetermined eligibility. This includes traditional crop subsides, which totaled $7.7 billion for California farmers in 2009 according to the Environmental Working Group. It also includes food stamps, which under the name CalFresh aid roughly 3 million Californians annually.

For conservative skeptics, the bill also present big fat targets for budget cutting. Some cuts are built into the legislation, like a proposed 10 percent cut in a Women, Infants and Children feeding program and an 11 percent reduction to the Food and Drug Administration's budget.

"It undermines the ability of the (FDA) to protect our food supply," Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, declared during debate.

In California, about 1.4 million residents are served through the Women, Infants and Children program. The liberal-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates the 10 percent cut would deprive up to 55,000 otherwise eligible Californians of aid.

"House Republicans are proposing gutting nutrition programs," stated Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, adding that "their priorities are all wrong."

The House subcommittee that wrote the bill countered with a reminder of the government's "unsustainable spending path" and insisted the panel "is doing its part to reverse this destructive spending pattern."

Starting Tuesday night, moreover, lawmakers debated myriad amendments to make additional cuts. Some struck a symbolic note but went well beyond traditional farm policy, like a short-lived proposal to eliminate a breast-feeding education program serving low-income women.

"I very much believe in breast feeding," Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C. assured her colleagues Wednesday, "but coaching women on breast feeding is not the role of Washington."

Lawmakers rejected other proposals significant for California farmers, including an amendment that would have eliminated $175 million from a foreign marketing program whose recent beneficiaries include the California Table Grape Commission, the California Prune Board and others.

The House was to debate the spending bill through Wednesday night and possibly vote on it Thursday. It then goes to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future; some lawmakers believe Congress will end up jamming all spending bills into one humongous package.

The White House stated the administration has "serious concerns" about the House bill, citing the cuts to food safety and nutrition.

While occasionally heated, the House debate offered only a taste of the farm bill fight that will build through this year and next. Through the farm bill, lawmakers will confront longer-term policy questions including income limits for crop subsidy recipients.