Passing this farm bill won't be a 'SNAP'
By Ken Root
“Follow the money,” as they say in the big leagues of finance and sports. That will be the situation in this year’s attempt to pass farm legislation. There was procedure and process to put the two pieces of farm legislation before Congress, but the most contentious issue for both agriculture committees, and in each body when the bill arrives on the floor, is to center the money issue enough for passage.
Rural America skewed toward the conservative side in the past presidential election. Although farmers did not find fault with the biotech, biofuels and conservation policies of the Barack Obama administration, an estimated 76 percent of farmers voted Republican. The number of “safe” Republican and Democrat House districts increased to the point that extreme members of the last Congress were re-elected to this term. That means their desire to cut spending, or add benefits, is even stronger and that won’t bode well for traditional negotiations.
The conflict over farm bill spending focuses on two areas: farm program payments and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which is commonly referred to as “the Food Stamp Program.”
The big unknown is how much Democratic members of Congress will allow SNAP to be cut before they vote against the farm bill.
SNAP is a monster. It consumed 77 percent of the total agriculture budget in 2012. Growth in the program is phenomenal: $35 billion in 2007 to $80 billion in 2012. Qualified recipients moved from 26 million in 2007 to 47 million over the same period. If you are saying “How can this be?” you are not alone, but one in six persons is now receiving nutrition assistance from the federal government.
Keeping this in perspective, the urban members of Congress are outraged at the amount of money that goes to “millionaire farmers” who get subsidies on crop insurance, direct payments and conservation matching funds. Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Democrat from urban Cleveland, clearly articulates the Democratic viewpoint: “They want means testing for current recipients and new applicants for food stamps. Well, let’s do the same for these farmers who are getting millions from commodity programs.”
This is an impasse that could be resolved by separating the food and nutrition expenditure from production, food safety and conservation programs. This is not a new argument but it has much more gravity in a time when spending has doubled and government revenue has shrunk. The logical department to handle this program would be Health and Human Services, as it aligns with its mission and core constituency quite closely. However, the strongest of agricultural voices cry out that moving the $80 billion dollar SNAP program would cause death to the farm program.
The reasoning comes down to “horse trading” between the two groups. Rural legislators, all the way back to the 1960s, expressed strong desire to keep food spending inside farm legislation because they would have no leverage without it. The food interests know that they can keep their program growing as long as they give agriculture its share of the pie. The problem is that the Obama administration took more of the 2008-2012 pie and the next one (2013-2017) will be smaller.
Both Senate and House farm bills address farm and food spending. The committee members are aware of the long-term goal of passing a bill and getting it signed by the president. On the Senate side, it seems to be a fairly amenable group that will cut food spending by a few billion and keep farm programs close to their current level. The House is more volatile and extreme. If the conservative Republicans try to cut too much from SNAP, then they will lose votes on the Democratic side. The Republican majority will allow a final House number on the SNAP reduction to be larger than what will be contained in the Senate bill.
So we go to the infamous “end game” of bringing the bills to the floor of both houses for debate and amendments. Uninvolved members get a single chance to show their approval or disapproval of the spending. The Senate is likely to be fairly mellow on the farm bill because it is focusing on immigration as the biggest challenge of this year. The House will likely wage a budget war upon itself with some likelihood that farm legislation will be the victim. In the House, anti-administration sentiment on farm legislation may get lumped in with Obamacare, Benghazi and Operation Fast and Furious. If so, the left and right will beat the middle and we will be back to an extension of the 2008 bill for one more year.
Although we will know the content of both agriculture committee bills when you read this, we won’t know what level of cuts both farm and food interests will have to accept to pass Congress and be signed by the president.
The debate on decoupling farm from food will be raised, but it is very unlikely that they will be split as the nature of Congress is to compromise even if the members are as uncompromising as we have elected for this term.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.