Food fight: How battles over turf and trade killed an increase in WIC funding

WASHINGTON–When the House Appropriations Committee approved its spending bill for agriculture programs two weeks ago, the measure included a small provision sponsored by Rep. Rosa DeLauro to increase funding for a popular food-assistance program. But DeLauro’s amendment was quietly removed by House Republicans just before the full House began debating the agriculture bill this week.

DeLauro’s amendment was a tiny $147 million slice of the sweeping $125.5 billion bill. But the story of its sudden death touches on international trade disputes, controversial cotton subsidies, and the bitter budget fights currently running through Congress.

It also includes some odd-bedfellow alliances, including twin efforts by DeLauro, a liberal Democrat from New Haven, and Rep. Jeff Flake, a firebrand conservative from Arizona, to target U.S. cotton subsidy payments to Brazil. That effort eventually succeeded, although not the way DeLauro had hoped.

The payments are part of a settlement deal between the Brazil and the U.S., after the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that American subsidies and export guarantees provided to U.S. cotton farmers were illegal. In the wake of that ruling, the WTO said Brazil could impose more than $800 million worth of tariff increases and retaliatory measures on America.

To stave off the retaliation, the Obama Administration worked out a deal in which the U.S. agreed to pay $147 million annually to the Brazilian Cotton Institute to assist that country’s cotton sector. Brazil is a major cotton exporter and a U.S. rival in that commodity market. That agreement hasn’t won much favor in Congress.

“We want to pay Brazil almost $150 million a year so that we can continue subsidizing U.S. cotton: Only in Washington could this pass for logic,” Flake said in a statement at the time. It moves U.S. “federal farm subsidy policy from the impractical to the absurd.”

Flake and DeLauro both sit on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. When the ag spending bill came up last month, Flake offered an amendment to reduce federal subsidies paid U.S. cotton farmers by $147 million and use that money to pay America’s WTO obligation to the Brazilian Cotton Institute.

DeLauro offered a slightly different provision, taking the $147 million the U.S. owes to Brazil and redirecting it to Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a federal food assistance program for low-income mothers and children. Both amendments passed the committee by voice vote.

But when the measure moved to the House Rules Committee earlier this week, Republicans used a parliamentary maneuver to strip both Flake and DeLauro’s amendments out. “We tried to take money–$147 million–from Brazilian cotton farmers,” DeLauro said. “The Rules Committee just eviscerated that.”

DeLauro said the GOP’s move shows they would prefer to give Brazilian cotton farmers $147 million than to use that money to feed poor Americans. But others said there was more to it than that. The move to kill DeLauro’s amendment–done at the request of the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Frank Lucas–was a product of legislative turf battles, subsidy protection efforts, and international diplomacy.

Opponents said DeLauro was trying to dictate agriculture policy–the ag panel’s purview–through a spending bill, a no-no under congressional rules. Besides that, there is the matter of the WTO agreement, and opponents say DeLauro’s provision could have sparked a trade spat with Brazil if the U.S. failed to pay the $147 million.

“It’s the law,” said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, an Appropriations Committee Republican who has many cotton farmers in her rural Missouri district. “We have to pay these Brazilian farmers.”

Emerson said she, too, would rather spend that $147 million on something else, describing the WTO decision with an unprintable profanity.

So why not get end U.S. subsidies as a way to blunt the Brazilian dispute–and save more federal money in the process? “The subsidies are necessary,” Emerson responded, because the U.S. faces unfair competition from other cotton-producing countries that dole out even more government largess to their farmers than the U.S. does.

Flake offered another explanation. “Unfortunately, too many Republicans like ag subsidies,” he said. “And this is the real test of our mettle here–whether we’re going to get serious about the deficit or not. If we can’t pick some of this low hanging fruit to get the deficit under control, then I worry about what we’re doing.”

Flake said the move to scrap the anti-subsidies amendments in the Rules Committee, where there was no debate or vote, shows his GOP colleagues didn’t want to kill the legislation in public. “There’s nothing here that anyone wants to defend,” he said, at least not on a roll call vote.

Indeed, during Thursday’s full House floor debate on the ag bill, Ron Kind, a Democrat of Wisconsin, successfully won approval of an amendment to bar the U.S. from making payments to the Brazilian Cotton Institute. But Democrats weren’t able to redirect any of that money to the WIC program, leaving DeLauro steaming.

“This is unacceptable,” DeLauro said in a conference call with reporters earlier this week. She noted that the WIC program has traditionally garnered bipartisan support. In the ag bill, Republicans slated the program for a $650 million cut–part of belt-tightening efforts by House Republicans across all spending bills amid the current budget constraints.

She said the $650 million cut to WIC would mean that “as many as 350,000 eligible women and children will be denied” the food assistance they need. “You’re looking at cuts to nutrition programs that are going to force hundreds thousands of families to go hungry.”

It’s unclear how either the WIC program or the cotton subsidies will fare in the Senate, which has yet to act on its version of the ag appropriations bill.