October 25, 2005

Lawmakers vote to allow privatizing US food stamps

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House and Senate negotiators working
on a $100 billion agriculture spending bill voted on Tuesday to
allow states to privatize the food stamp program, which helps
25 million people put food on the table monthly.

When they adjourned for the night, negotiators had yet to
vote on a House proposal to delay for two years a requirement
for foodmakers to put country-of-origin labels on red meat.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, said she believed
panel leaders would use the recess to strip out language
banning federal inspection of horse slaughter. Proponents say
the ban would save 100,000 horses a year from being killed to
provide horsemeat for diners overseas.

The so-called conference committee has the chore of writing
a final, compromise version of bills passed by the House and
Senate to fund the Agriculture Department and related agencies
this fiscal year. The compromise bill then will be presented to
each chamber for passage with no amendments allowed.

Although Senate negotiators voted 9-8 to erect barriers to
letting private firms take over food-stamp office work, the
House side rejected the idea, 9-6. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa
Democrat, said the vote effectively killed his idea of
preventing privatization without proof the change would work.

Texas has requested permission to privatize food stamps as
part of an overhaul of its welfare programs. Antihunger
activists say Texas wants to close dozens of local offices and
do more of the work by telephone, aided by thousands of hours
of donated labor from charities and other volunteer groups.

"How many poor people are going to go on the Internet to
apply for food stamps?" asked Harkin in arguing that relying on
call centers or electronic applications would discourage

Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican, said the government
should encourage experiments that could streamline service and
save money.

Montana Sen. Conrad Burns said he would try to keep on
track a law that requires country-of-origin labels on red meat
beginning in late 2006. The House, which delayed mandatory
labels once before, wants a two-year delay, which would make
meat labeling a potential issue for the 2007 update of U.S.
farm subsidy law.

"I say it's the law. Write the rule and let it go forward,"
said Burns, a Montanan.

Both chambers voted earlier this year to withdraw federal
inspection of horse slaughter, which would prevent sale of the
meat for human consumption. Rep. Henry Bonilla, Texas
Republican and chairman of the negotiating committee, refused
to give Landrieu assurance the provision would stay in the

"If you have the votes to overturn (it) ... I would ask my
colleagues to be brave enough to do it in public," said
Landrieu. Afterward, she pointed to the possibility the ban
would be removed "in the middle of the night."