Farm Bill Irks Conservatives with Food Stamp Allocations

The House Committee on Agriculture passed a new five-year farm bill—the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act of 2013—this week just after the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry earlier approved its own version—the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013.

This Congress will not have any easier a time than the last passing a final bill -- consensus is split as some demand major reform to subsidies and food assistance programs.

“It's often said that farm bills are written in conference,” said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.). “So, we'll see. That may be the case. The House bill gets passed, the Senate bill gets passed, and you try to work out the differences in the conference committee.”

A bipartisan deal, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012, cleared both the Senate and the House Agriculture committees in July 2012, but the deal never had a vote on the House floor during the final leg of a fiscal-cliff-marred Congress. Instead, most programs in the expired 2008 Farm Bill were extended through 2013.

“The Farm Bill is like Christmastime for central planners … it’s a nightmare for anyone with free market principles,” said Daren Bakst, fellow in agricultural policy at the Heritage Foundation. The pork and “bloated nature” of the legislation is unnecessary for an industry that is doing well, said Bakst.

In a new Farm Bill primer released by the foundation, Bakst calls attention to the bill’s “misleading” title, as 80 percent of the spending in the last Farm Bill was dedicated to food stamps and other nutrition programs, not assisting farmers.

The House bill is projected to cut spending in farm and nutrition programs by nearly $40 billion over the next 10 years. More than half, $20.5 billion, would come from cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“I am particularly disturbed by the impact these cuts will have to children who participate in free or reduced lunch,” said Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Calif.). “In the district I represent, a majority of school-age children are on free or reduced lunch programs. As many families struggle to put dinner on the table, most of these children rely on their school lunch. These children deserve to eat. These cuts are deplorable and will have an impact on our future generations.”

Some on the Senate side are also up in arms.

“Just as important as the health of our agriculture industry is the health and nutrition of our children and families,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). “I am deeply concerned with the drastic cuts this bill makes to SNAP that will literally take food away from hungry children, while protecting corporate welfare for insurance companies based in Bermuda, Australia and Switzerland who don't need it. These are the wrong priorities.”

The number of people receiving SNAP benefits is at a record high, reaching 46.6 million as of December 2012, according to the USDA.

According to Heritage’s primer, talk of de-politicizing agriculture programs and welfare policy is met with stiff resistance. For example, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) recently told the North American Agricultural Journalists group that food stamps should continue to be included in the farm bill “purely from a political perspective. It helps get the farm bill passed.”

The primer goes on to say that subsidies are often referred to as a “safety net.” But subsidies produce a perverse double-whammy: taxpayers are hit with underwriting the costs and consumers are slammed with higher prices on groceries. Meanwhile, rather than stabilize crop prices as proponents claim, subsidies promote overproduction and downward pressure on prices—thereby increasing subsidy payouts.