Bennet Lands Spot on Committee Tasked with Wrestling over Farm Bills

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper meet with fire fighters. Bennet has worked fire-protection measures into the farm bill.
COLORADO SEN. MICHAEL BENNET has been appointed to the Farm Bill Conference Committee, the bipartisan coalition charged with reconciling the radically different farm bills that came out of the Senate and then the House this summer.

Bennet has his work cut out for him.

The House bill does not include funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, which helps feeds millions of Americans in an economy still struggling to produce jobs. Republicans are determined to slash the program by tens of billions of dollars. Democrats oppose such a move. As ideological tensions built around the program, House leaders tabled it for later consideration. President Obama has said he won’t sign any farm bill that simply delays the need to address the food stamps issue. The Senate is ready to talk. The House has yet to appoint anyone to the committee.

“The irony is that if you leave the nutrition part out, you get no reforms and no deficit reduction,” said Bennet spokesman Adam Bozzi. “The Senate bill made common sense reforms that would save taxpayers money but also meet the needs of people who need help… It’s counter productive not to work together and get these two pieces [the farm and nutrition titles] passed together.”

The House is now scrambling to deliver a follow up food stamps bill. The most recent proposal doubles the cuts the House proposed in June to $40 billion, which is ten times the cuts passed in the Senate version of the Farm Bill.

“I’m almost speechless. It’s really just insane, and there’s no way [the House version of SNAP] will pass,” said Katy Underhill, the executive director of Hunger Free Colorado. She says the drive to cut the food-stamps program can’t be justified on government-debt grounds, so it has to do with perceptions of and ideology about government’s role in helping the poor — or people who have fallen on hard times.

“SNAP does not contribute to our long-term debt. Economist after economist after economist has said that. If we believe them, and most policies seem to rely on their advice, then why are House politicians so set on punishing, on taking food — the most basic of human needs — away from people who are struggling? People are already totally stressed and maxed out. Why send this message of carelessness?”

In addition to supplementing individual grocery purchases, SNAP also funds roughly 15,000 jobs in Colorado and, in 2010, generated more than $1.2 billion in economic output, according to estimates by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. SNAP, which received a temporary boost during the recession, is additionally scheduled for across the board cuts in November.

Coloradans have a lot at stake in the debate. Indeed, the farm bill addresses much beyond the fundamental matters of nutrition and agriculture.  Bennet spearheaded efforts that added several provisions to the Senate bill to support conservation efforts in the West to address the increasingly hot, dry summers, including ramping up defense against wildfires.

With Congress headed into August recess and with the current farm bill set to expire mere days after Congress reopens in September, anxiety is palpable — in Washington and at dinner tables and on the land.

If no reconciliation can be achieved, Congress will have forced itself into extending the 2008 Farm Bill for yet another year, losing key innovations proposed in this year’s bills and spending by default a rough minimum or $24 billion in tax money lawmakers have already agreed to cut.

Bozzi is not confident Republican leaders in the lower chamber will find a way to act .

“The House is becoming more and more difficult to predict,” he said.