Will Lobby for Food

Something happened today that, chances are, you know little about yet care about very deeply. It helps pay for the lovely farmers market you frequent every weekend. It’s behind all those corn-syrupy soft drinks you’ve been taught to avoid. It’s the reason you started hiking to that one artisanal shop for grass-fed beef after you read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It helps feed America’s hungry, because it authorizes the federal food-stamp program, which feeds 46 million people. It’s the farm bill, usually the concern of only the corn, wheat, cotton, peanut, and soy-bean lobby, but it really should be called the food bill, and it has to be reauthorized every five years. The House Agriculture Committee debated and passed the reauthorization of the law this morning—and it includes $16 billion in cuts to food stamps and an amendment that will kill a program designed to help small chicken farmers. Now, the bill will likely die.

Most observers don’t expect House Majority Leader John Boehner to take the bill up in the tightly packed legislative days before the August recess. It seems even less likely that the House will have a proper debate on the floor before the fiscal year ends September 30, when the current farm bill expires.

The reluctance to take the bill to the House floor is partly about timing—it’s a big bill to debate in such a short amount of time—but is mostly about politics. Deficit hawks want to cut government spending, but not when it comes to their base. Money from the farm bill buys many Republican congressmen, especially from the South, a lot of votes. A farm-bill debate on the House floor could split the right. But the bill also angers the left—there’s almost no scenario in which a bill passes without substantial cuts to the food-stamp program, which is the biggest spending item in the farm bill. Patty Lovera, of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, thinks that the most likely way the current farm bill will become law is if it passes attached as a rider to some must-pass bill, like an extension of the Bush tax cuts or a bill that prevents automated cuts to the defense budget from going into effect. If that happens, there’s almost no way to stop some of the biggest cuts House Republicans want from going into effect. “There is so much potential for shenanigans,” Lovera says.

During the Great Depression, Congress passed the farm bill as we know it now to tinker with agriculture markets, especially for grains like corn and wheat. Market forces, left to their own devices, cause problems like encouraging each farmer to overproduce. The government paid farmers not to use chunks of their land so that the markets wouldn’t be glutted with their products, causing prices to fall. Falling prices would encourage farmers to try to sell even more to make up lost revenues, pushing prices still lower—you get the idea. The payments served to set a price floor, so farmers wouldn’t enter the market unless prices rose above it.

In the 1980s, Congress changed the way payments were made—instead of paying farmers to stay out of the market when prices were low, farmers could sell their products at low prices and the government would make up the difference. Overall, this served to make the price of grains like corn especially cheap; farmers can now sell their grains and other products for way less than it cost to produce them because the government will make up the difference in the form of direct cash payments. It exacerbates the problem—falling prices—that subsidies were originally meant to prevent. Many writers and advocates have called for a substantial change in food policy to prevent the overabundance of corn and combat a system that rewards giant agri-businesses. They hoped that this bill—which will be the only farm bill during Barack Obama’s tenure, even if he is re-elected—would provide it. It hasn’t.

Currently, there are two different version of the farm bill (the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition details the major differences between them on its blog). The Senate passed its version last month. Introduced by Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, it cuts $23 billion overall, mostly by trimming direct payments to farmers. It sets an upper-income limit on farmers who qualify for direct payments, which many outside groups, like The Environmental Working Group (EWG), have advocated for. The EWG’s work has shown that most federal subsidies intended to help farmers go to very rich individuals or agri-businesses, and it’s their involvement that prevents systemic reform. The Senate bill starts to shift all farmers over to private crop insurance, so they will only get paid when their crops fail, and gives them money to help with their premiums. But the income caps created on the direct-payment system won’t extend to the crop-insurance program, so the bill isn’t as forward-thinking as it might look. “We call the Senate bill bait-and-switch,” says Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

The Senate’s bill also cuts $4 billion from food stamps, and some money from conservation programs. It continues a program Stabenow championed in the last farm bill, in 2008, to give more support to producers of specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, and other programs designed to help new and minority farmers.

The House version now in committee gives farmers the option to move to crop-insurance assistance from direct payments but makes the former unpalatable and does nothing to reform the latter. It also cuts more deeply from conservation programs that actually encourage farmers to conserve land and sends more money to the EQIP program, which calls itself a conservation program but primarily funds the giant manure lagoons you see throughout the Midwest and West outside giant animal farms that pump livestock up with grain and drugs right before slaughter. The committee also passed an amendment to cut a provision from the 2008 farm bill that would have given more rights to small livestock farmers.

Most controversially, the House wants to take a $16 billion chunk out of food stamps, a program that costs about $80 billion a year. House Republicans are going to say that the cuts come from eliminating waste and fraud, but it actually just makes it harder for qualifying families to get enrolled in the program automatically when they sign up for other programs, like Medicaid. A floor debate would likely restore a lot of funding—at least, many House members would try to do so—to programs like food stamps. Groups that champion food for the poor aren’t amped up about either bill, but the Senate’s cuts are far less deep.

Still, it’s important that something pass. Not passing any farm bill means the USDA might have to revert to some really old law—an 1849 law, in fact—in the way it administers its programs. A lot of programs, like the federal dollars that support your farmers markets, would disappear. Two things are more likely to happen: either the House will attach the farm bill to something that absolutely has to pass, or the House and the Senate will try to push through a temporary reauthorization of the 2008 farm bill into next year. The problem with both ideas is that this Congress doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to do anything, especially with the election looming. “So many of our programs that currently get farm-bill support,” Hoefner says, “would be left hanging high and dry.”

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