April 20, 2014
What Happened to the Farm Bill? PDF Print E-mail

The long delayed Farm Bill crashed and burned in the House of Representatives on June 20 as the most conservative Republicans joined Democrats to send the nearly $1 trillion farm subsidy and food stamp bill down to a “stunning defeat.” The Wall Street Journal judged the 195-234 vote “a sharp rebuke of the House leadership,” despite of the Republican’s 35-vote majority. Agriculture columnist Alan Guebert observed the GOP’s big guns in the House – Goodlatte, Virginia; Ryan, Wisconsin; Hensarling, Texas; Shuster, Pennsylvania; Miller, Florida; Royce, California – all committee bosses, “hung their speaker out to dry like dirty socks.” Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, put much on the line as he publically praised the bill; even casting his first farm bill vote since 1996. Guebert concluded, “All leave Boehner and his Balkanized House deeply wounded and deeply dysfunctional on the Farm Bill front. Any option to move any 2013 farm legislation is not going anywhere fast.” What happened?
House leaders, of course, blame Democrats for reneging on promises to support the $940 billion over 10-years legislation. Boehner expected the long time coalition of urban Republicans voting for farm programs in return for Democratic support for the largely urban food stamps initiative to ensure passage. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., accused Democrats of withholding support they had promised, saying they “shamefully chose politics over progress and meaningful reform.” This is not quite true, as the only real reform in the passed Senate version and rejected House initiative was both dropping direct payments to farmers.    
Congress finally recognized the absurdity of the direct-payment program paying farmers to not grow crops. The Chicago Tribune stated: “Farm subsidies, the obsolete Soviet-style affronts to the free-market, have got to go. The concept of a farm safety net has been twisted into a grotesque abuse of taxpayer dollars. Since 1996, farmers have been getting hefty government checks, called direct payments, for doing nothing but being farmers. Even their keenest supporters have given up trying to justify that transfer of wealth from taxpayers to some of the wealthiest people in the countryside…. The House and Senate bills would eliminate direct payments, but crop insurance would be expanded. That can’t be justified.”
The numbers do not justify either direct payments or the bloated food stamps expenditures. Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agricultural policy at The Heritage Foundation lamented, “The farm programs are often thought of as a safety net for small farmers. This also isn’t reality. About 75 percent of larger farms with incomes of $250,000 to $999,999 receive government subsidies. Only 24 percent of small farms with incomes from $10,000 to $249,999 get them. The programs are also less about providing safety nets and more about maintaining high levels of prosperity. Agriculture is a high-tech and innovative sector of the economy. Unlike most sectors, it’s a booming industry. Net farm income (what farmers earn after expenses) is at its highest level in 40 years. Commodity prices are also at record highs. Congress shouldn’t ignore the conditions of agriculture as it develops a new farm bill.”
The 2013 Farm Bill, which pundits renamed the Food Stamp Bill, budgeted $240 billion for farm initiatives and $700 billion for nutritional assistance. The Republican leaning Chicago Tribune noted: “Food stamp spending has soared over the past decade, partly because of the recession but also because rule changes have made it easier to qualify for aid. The federal government provides a justifiable safety net to prevent hunger. But the food stamp program’s expansion to $74.6 billion in 2012 from $18.3 billion a decade ago is alarming. The House bill proposes more substantial cuts than the Senate bill does.” Currently, one of seven Americans receives food stamps.
What to do! Proponents of true reform want to separate the farm side from the food stamp side; create two bills to allow serious debate about reform instead of using backroom style “you help me; I’ll help you” maintenance of an obsolete status quo. Yet the issue is highly emotional. Farm groups bemoan the ironic timing of the farm bill negotiations in a time of historic prosperity. They are correct to note commodity prices, favorable weather conditions, and production expenses are cyclical. It was only a few years ago corn and soybean farmers lost money every time they fired up their equipment engines.
Many legislators supported Florida Republican Rep. Steve Southerland’s amendment to toughen work requirements in the food stamp program. The amendment passed, but many observers blame it for the Democrats withdrawing support for the final bill. Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explained Southerland’s proposal “violated ‘the most basic standards of human decency because it made no effort, as other work requirements in the past, to create employment openings for those who ‘want to work and would accept any job or work slot they could get, but cannot find jobs in a weak economy.” The House bill proposed cutting food stamps by $20.5 billion, in addition to the tougher work requirements amendment. Liberal commentator, E.J. Dionne, Jr., judged: “But this is above all a story about morality. There is something profoundly wrong when a legislative majority is so eager to risk leaving so many Americans hungry. That’s what the bill would have done, and why defeating it was a moral imperative.”
The conservative Wall Street Journal presented a different perspective. Stating that 80 percent of the food stamps bill, the paper disparagingly rechristened the farm bill, provided funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAPS), the paper’s editors criticized the program for lowering eligibility requirements over the years. Noting that “a mere 21 million people” were covered a decade ago, enrollment “gradually started to climb and has spiked more than 70% since 2008. This is in part an artifact of the recession, but enrollment has continued to rise even as the economy recovers. Changes under George W. Bush in 2002, the Pelosi Congress in 2008 and the 2009 Obama stimulus expanded eligibility and loosened income tests and asset requirements to convert food stamps into another entitlement…. The fact that one of seven Americans is on food stamps isn’t a reflection of poverty or compassion but is an indictment of the growth of government…. Society shouldn’t shrug its shoulders when so many people are on the food dole.”
Cass County farmer, Saturn, observed: “In my opinion I do not expect the end of direct farm payments to have any effect (especially with grain prices so high). Pork, beef, and poultry producers have paid more for feed over the decades because of the farm program payments (since there are no farm programs for pork, beef or poultry). Also, direct payments over the years have ended up causing land prices to rise. However, if ended, the subsidy for crop insurance premiums could be a big deal. Congress is looking to cut something, and, with the strong farm economy, farm program payments are a huge target. What else is so obvious? So there will be some sort of farm policy passed and signed. I do not understand the exact financial needs of those receiving food stamps, but I assume that there are major abuses. I also feel that the food stamp program is a huge stimulus for the economy where individuals who receive food stamps end up with extra money to spend on other things. So I am not sure that ending the food stamp program is good for the economy? Over the years it has always been easier to get the farm policy passed by tying it to food stamps.”
With wages of American workers falling in every industry, Congress needs to get the Farm/Food Stamp Bill right – even the playing field. Yes, we can’t live without food, but we need shelter, transportation, clothing, infrastructure, energy, and better education as well. Is the sell-out of federal and state leadership during the past generation a sign of the beginning of the end of America’s exceptionalism – as a beacon of hope for the world’s aspiring population? Have we chosen as a people to accept decline, as did Rome and Great Britain? Or is it we just don’t give a damn anymore? Moral indifference has brought down all past great civilizations.