Democrats get creative to prevent deep cuts to anti-poverty programs

A Democratic appropriator this week successfully convinced Republican appropriators to reduce a cut to child nutrition, but Democrats have only faint hope that the rare victory can be repeated.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) was able late Tuesday to convince her colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee to restore $147 million to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food assistance program, which otherwise would have been cut by $832 million, or 12 percent, in the 2012 agriculture bill. 

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With a voice vote, DeLauro fought off the cuts by identifying a program less popular than assistance to the poor: cash payments to Brazilian cotton farmers. 

The DeLauro amendment forbids payments under an Obama administration-negotiated deal with Brazil meant to satisfy a World Trade Organization ruling against U.S. cotton subsidies, which were found to be illegal under international trade rules. 

“None of the funds made available by this Act or any other Act may be used to provide payments (or to pay the salaries and expenses of personnel to provide payments) to the Brazil Cotton Institute,” the DeLauro amendment states.

In an interview, DeLauro said she fears the victory could be both short-lived and one of a kind. 

“I don’t think they will let it stand. I think they will attack it on the floor,” she said of Republicans. 

More broadly, she said, the victory is an exception, and for the most part Democrats will not be able to stave off GOP cuts.

 “There are so many things we weren’t able to stop: cuts to food safety, the CFTC,” she said, referring to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which Democrats say will not be able to implement financial regulatory reform due to cuts.

DeLauro is the ranking member on the Labor and Health and Human Services Appropriations subcommittee, which will see the deepest cuts to spending this year. She said that the fight over that bill, slated for July, will be brutal and will likely result in a bill similar to the original GOP 2011 spending measure, which made significant cuts to the social safety net.

Democratic appropriators, led by ranking member Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.) have been pushing the GOP behind the scenes to look for cuts in places other than the social safety net.

 Dicks has identified three principles in his discussions with committee Republicans. 

According to an aide, those principles are not to make cuts so drastic they’ll harm the economic recovery; not to slash benefits to those in need at a time when there’s only one job for every five applicants; and not to make “penny-wise, pound-foolish” cuts that cost the nation more in the long run. 

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated the original cuts to the WIC program, before DeLauro’s amendment, would force WIC to turn away 325,000 to 475,000 eligible low-income women and young children next year.

Repeating DeLauro’s success in protecting a Democratic priority program will be difficult, given the spending levels dictated by the House GOP budget, a Democratic aide said, since other available offsets have also already been cut.

 Still, some Democrats are more hopeful than DeLauro that some cuts can be softened. Aides pointed out that some of the deep cuts in the 2011 spending bill approved by Congress earlier this year were watered down through negotiations with the White House. 

Democrats also say they are playing defense, and looking for new arguments or creative solutions to prevent cuts to programs they see as necessary. 

“Minimizing the pain: that is a horrible way to face this job, where you’re playing defense. That is basically what our role is now,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), a member of the Appropriations Committee.

 He said DeLauro succeeded by arguing passionately on behalf of the poor and by being creative in finding an offset. Serrano said he hopes more such amendments can be found.

 Not making the Brazil payment could open the U.S. to WTO-sanctioned trade retaliation by Brazil. The WTO has found U.S. export credit guarantees and cotton subsidies to illegally distort world trade. The U.S. altered the export guarantees but has been allowed to maintain the cotton subsidies pending the next farm bill, so long as the Cotton Institute payments are made.

 The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said Wednesday that it is reviewing the DeLauro language.

The National Cotton Council, however, said the actions violated the agreement between the U.S. and Brazil. It said Congress should let the process negotiated by the U.S. and Brazil “come to fruition.”