WASHINGTON — Rural life advocates see a good chance for a delayed farm bill to finally go through Congress before the month of May is over.
To that end, advocates – among them four Catholic entities in a joint letter – are reminding Congress of their priorities as a farm bill is being hashed out.
In a May 9 letter to Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Agriculture Committee, the Catholic groups outlined domestic hunger, international food security, conservation, rural development and subsidies as key issues to be treated in a farm bill.
The organizations – the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services – seek cuts in crop subsidies, but preservation and enhancement to their other priority areas.
"We ask that you support a farm bill that provides for poor and hungry people both at home and abroad, offers effective support for those who grow our food, ensures fairness to family farmers and ranchers, and promotes stewardship of the land. Limited resources, such as subsidies and direct payments, should also be targeted in the farm bill to those farmers and ranchers who truly need assistance to be competitive and successful," said the letter.
It was signed by Bishops Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, and Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairmen of the USCCB's Committee on International Justice and Peace and Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, respectively; CRS President Carolyn Woo; Fr. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA; and James Ennis, executive director of the rural life conference.
"There is a brief window of opportunity to make sure our elected officials get beyond partisan posturing and show their support for family farmers, protect and conserve farmland, and ensure an abundant supply of affordable, healthy food," said a May 10 email from the rural life conference to its members.
"Government support through direct payments to farmers is no longer valid and should be eliminated," it added. "Instead, government subsidies for crop insurance can be targeted to small and moderate-sized farms; these subsidies should also be capped and monitored to avoid excessive giveaways to large operations" while keeping in mind beginning farmers and ranchers who need greater access to these resources.
The rural life conference also voiced concerns shared by others to potential cuts of programs in the farm bill.
"Anti-hunger groups worry that food assistance programs will receive sharp cuts in spending. This includes both domestic programs, namely the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and international Food Aid programs," it said.
"Sustainable agriculture groups worry that conservation programs will also see spending cuts, despite the popularity of these programs with farmers. Public support is needed to protect the Conservation Stewardship Program in particular, but other conservation programs are also on the cutting block."
Seven Catholic groups were among more than 100 national organizations asking Congress to keep from weakening the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known colloquially as food stamps.
"SNAP reaches the neediest and most vulnerable people in our country. The average household has an income of only 58.5 percent of the federal poverty level and 83 percent of all benefits go to households with a child, senior, or disabled person," the groups said in a May 6 letter. "Overwhelmed food banks, pantries, religious congregations and other emergency food providers across the country cannot fill the significant gaps in nutrition assistance that weakening SNAP would leave."
The signers included the USCCB, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, the Catholic social justice lobby Network, the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the Viatorians' Provincial Council, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the Institute Justice Team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas signed on to the statement.
Other signatories included Christian and Jewish groups, unions, women's and civil rights organizations, and health and food policy organizations.
The foundation of a farm bill had its origins in bipartisan deficit-reduction talks in late 2011, but the bipartisan "supercommittee" of House and Senate members could not come to a final agreement on an overall federal debt-cutting framework, thus scuttling the farm bill.
Work last year on the bill was hampered by the absence of Congress from Washington for long stretches of the year due to campaigning during a presidential election year, and time ran out to get a bill passed during the post-election lame duck session.