WASHINGTON – The Republican-led House voted to slash domestic and international food aid Thursday while rejecting cuts to farm subsidies.
A spending bill to fund the nation's food and farm programs would cut the Women, Infants and Children program, which offers food aid and educational support for low-income mothers and their children, by $868 million, or 13 percent. An international food assistance program that provides emergency aid and agricultural development would drop by more than $450 million, one-third of the program's budget. The legislation passed 217-203.
The bill would trim the Food and Drug Administration's $2.5 billion budget by almost 12 percent, straining the agency's ability to implement a new food safety law signed by President Barack Obama this year. Democratic attempts to restore some of the food safety money were rejected.
As they cut other programs, lawmakers rejected two proposals that would have saved money by lowering the maximum amount of money a farmer can receive in subsidies from the government. While fiscal conservatives and other critics of subsidies argued that they need to be cut as lawmakers look for ways to save, farm-state members said those cuts should be pushed back until Congress considers a new five-year farm bill next year.
Democrats said the cuts to food aid were reckless and that farm subsidies should be trimmed instead.
"The Republican bill is harmful, ineffective and plays politics with our children's health," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.
Critics of farm subsidies did score one victory: The House voted to block a $147 million annual payment to Brazil's cotton industry. The United States agreed to make that payment last year after Brazil's industry complained to the World Trade Organization that Washington unfairly was subsidizing U.S. cotton farmers. The United States lost the WTO case and agreed to make the payments to Brazil as a settlement.
Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who is a frequent critic of domestic farm subsidies, offered the amendment, saying the U.S. should lower domestic cotton subsidies to comply with the WTO instead of paying the settlement to Brazil. Kind was joined by fiscal conservatives who agreed the Brazil payment is wasteful.
"Let's end this nonsense of stacking subsidy program on top of subsidy program to blackmail other governments," Kind said.
In addition to making spending cuts, Republicans in the House used the legislation to express dissatisfaction with a number of Obama administration policies, including healthier eating initiatives championed by first lady Michelle Obama as part of her "Let's Move" campaign:
— Directs the Agriculture Department to rewrite rules it issued in January meant to make school meals healthier. Republicans say the new rules, the first major overhaul of school lunches in 15 years, are too costly.
— Forces USDA to report to Congress every time officials travel to promote the department's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, which supports locally grown food, and discourages the department from giving research grants to support local food systems. Large agribusiness has been critical of the department's focus on these smaller food producers.
— Prevents USDA from moving forward with new rules that would make it easier for smaller farmers and ranchers to sue large livestock companies on antitrust grounds. The proposed rules are meant to address the growing concentration of corporate power in agriculture.
— Delays for more than a year new rules for reporting trades in derivatives, the complex financial instruments blamed for helping precipitate the 2008 financial crisis. A Republican amendment adopted Thursday would require the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which funded in the bill, to first have other rules in place to facilitate its collection of derivatives market data.
— Prevents the FDA from approving genetically modified salmon for human consumption, a decision set for later this year.
— Questions the scope of Obama administration initiatives to put calories on menus and limit the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.
The House bill would provide $17.3 billion for the day-to-day operations of USDA and FDA. The Senate has not released its version of the bill.
The agriculture measure is the third of 12 annual spending bills funding government operations for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. Republicans have promised to cut tens of billions of dollars this year as they tackle the annual budget process, in addition to trillions in cuts they hope to make across the government.
Associated Press writer Marcy Gordon contributed to this report.