With a government shutdown looming on Sunday, the House plowed ahead with debating additional cuts to USDA and farm bill programs as part of a fiscal 2024 spending bill that has no chance of becoming law.

In a series of votes early Wednesday morning, the House turned back a series of amendments pushed by hard-line GOP conservatives to slash budgets for several USDA programs large and small, beyond the cuts the bill would already make.

The targets for cuts included Food for Peace, the largest in-kind food aid program; the Office of Civil Rights; the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds university research programs; the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

Conservatives argued that the federal budget deficit posed a grave threat to the country’s long-term security.

A proposal by Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., to eliminate the Food for Peace program was rejected 83-347. Some 130 Republicans joined Democrats in voting to preserve the program. Biggs complained that supporters of the program wanted to meet the “needs and wants of people offshore” as well as Americans.”

In a bid to win over the same hard-liners, the GOP leadership had already crafted a manager’s amendment to the bill that would slash Food for Peace program by $1.2 billion to $533 million and make an across-the-board 14% cut in the Agriculture bill's other funding levels, with the exception of the Women, Infants and Children food assistance program. 

Food for Peace is the flagship international food aid program. The $1.2 billion cut would more than offset $1.06 billion in food aid purchasing that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently proposed at the request of the Senate Agriculture Committee

Even before the manager's amendment the bill would reduce spending by 2% from FY23, and even that funding level depends on a mix of about $8 billion in rescissions of pandemic assistance and Inflation Reduction Act allocations to USDA.

There was no recorded vote Wednesday on the key issue of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program work requirements. The House adopted, by voice vote, an amendment proposed by Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., that would bar USDA from giving states waivers from the work requirements.

Graves argued states were “abusing” these waivers by using them as loopholes to exempt themselves from work requirements.

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“All we’re doing is we’re simply asking for 20 hours a week of volunteer time in return for receiving these very generous taxpayer-funded benefits,” Graves said.

The top Democrats on the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, Sanford Bishop, D-Georgia, called the amendment “mean” and “cruel,” but neither he nor Graves requested a recorded vote that would have forced House members to take a public position on the issues. 

“If there are not [any] jobs, they can’t be employed and they can’t comply with this,” Bishop said. “And the state should know better than we in Washington. If the state requests a waiver — which is a request, it’s not a mandate — then certainly the department can examine it and determine whether or not there’s sufficient cause to justify the waiver.”

The issue could re-surface during debate on a new farm bill, although the debt-ceiling agreement this spring included a compromise between the House GOP leadership and President Joe Biden on work requirements. 

Several other amendments targeting various programs also were adopted by voice vote, including one that would slash the salary of Stacy Dean, USDA's deputy undersecretary for food and nutrition programs, to $1 as punishment for modifications to a SNAP food-cost formula that increased monthly benefits. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., said the amendment would hold Dean accountable for "going rogue" in carrying out the changes, which were authorized by the 2018 farm bill.

Other amendments adopted by voice vote would cut the McGovern-Dole international school feeding program in half and another that would reduce the budget for USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service to FY19 levels.

Also approved by voice vote was an amendment that would prevent USDA from stopping schools from providing flavored milk to students.

The House delayed votes on additional amendments, including a proposal to bar USDA from operating checkoff programs. 

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