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Owens dismisses split farm bill passed in House as political gamesmanship

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Rep. William L. Owens predicts there is a 50-50 chance Congress will approve a farm bill this year, despite Thursday’s vote by the House of Representatives that cut the food stamp program from its version of the bill.

Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, who voted against the bill, said during a phone interview Friday that political tactics in the House won’t prevent a complete bill with farm programs and food stamps from being reconciled in a conference with members of the House and the Democratic-led Senate, leading the way for a final vote.

The House is expected to vote next week on a separate nutrition bill, which will include even deeper cuts than before to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or food stamps. Passage of that legislation, Mr. Owens said, is needed for a final bill to be negotiated by conference and put on the floor for a final vote in the House and Senate.

Mr. Owens said he believes that passing a farm bill by Sept. 30, when an extension of the current bill approved in 2008 expires, will hinge mainly on the level of cuts to food stamps in the final bill. He said the figure decided on will have to attract Democratic and Republican votes by finding the right balance.

“The number needs to be low enough to get Democratic votes,” Mr. Owens said. “My number is somewhere in the $6 to $10 billion range. My concern is there is still a lot of poverty in the north country and people that depend on food stamps for their survival.”

If the bill isn’t approved, he said, the 2008 farm bill likely will be extended for a year.

House Republican leaders were able to quickly bring forward Thursday’s split farm bill in the House, which was introduced Wednesday night. To do that, Mr. Owens said, the House rules committee waived the three-day period normally required for legislation to be reviewed. Only 12 Republicans voted against it.

Republican leaders “are talking about putting a nutrition bill on the floor next week, because they’re not sure the bill can be (negotiated) with the Senate without it. I can’t follow the logic of sending two separate bills over in the same bill” to be negotiated.

Mr. Owens predicted the Democratic-led Senate will not vote for a split farm bill, or one that contains steep cuts to food stamps. The Senate’s bill would cut about $4.1 billion to food stamps over the next decade, while the House is expected to approve cuts of more than $20 billion.

Food stamps and agriculture programs have been combined in the farm bill for 80 years for a good reason, Mr. Owens said. The number of members of Congress who represent heavily agricultural districts has gradually declined. That reduction of support for agricultural programs would make it challenging to pass a farm bill without dovetailing it with food stamps.

“As that trend continues in time, you would have almost no motion in Congress” on farm programs alone, “because you have so little representation,” Mr. Owens said. “One reason that food stamps were put into the farm bill was to make sure that urban legislators had interest in the legislation.”

Another item of controversy included in the approved House bill, which Mr. Owens opposes, is language that would repeal the so-called “1949 statute,” in which laws from the 1930s and ’40s take effect when the farm bill expires.

“That’s a long-term cause for concern, because the legislation motivated each of the bills that passed, because they would revert back to the bill from 1949,” he said. If the statute is repealed, “likely there will be no motivation to produce another farm bill going forward. That means specialty crop and conservation groups will be potentially cut out in 2018.”

Mr. Owens said he believes there’s now a 50-50 chance the bill will pass.

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