A favorite descriptive phrase in general media reporting on the political evolution of the 2012 Farm Bill is “the nearly $1-trillion Farm Bill.” This belies two points generally lost on the general media: First, the “nearly $1-trillion” figure is a 10-year figure, and no, I don’t know why a 10-year figure is used if the Farm Bill has a five-year life. Second, somewhere between 80% and 85% of that figure is attributable to so-called entitlement or “mandatory spending programs,” meaning food stamps, school lunch, Women-Infant-Children (WIC) nutrition and so forth.
The next question I’m asked is “Why is the food stamp program in the Farm Bill?” My answer is: “I don’t know.” What I’ve heard is that back in the day, a political decision was made. Farm and ranch groups worried about moving an omnibus farm/rural legislative package in an increasingly urban Congress, so to connect to their city cousins, they threw in food stamps and the rest of the feeding programs as an incentive for their urban colleagues to look the other ways on subsidies, loans and so forth. Over time, this strategy has pretty much worked the way it was designed to work.
That political logic is about to bite Farm Bill supporters in the kiester. The House Ag Committee-approved bill that emerged after a 15-hour marathon July 11 markup carries $16.1 billion in overall food stamp spending cuts, mainly through elimination of state governments’ authority to set their own state’s individual eligibility criteria. After Rep. Jim McGovern (D, MA), a member of the ag committee because he cares about food stamps, failed to amend the committee bill to replace the food stamp cuts, he told reporters after the mark-up the Democrats would do whatever it takes to kill the entire Farm Bill on the floor.
So now the controversy surrounding the House bill is all about food stamps – a nice development in an election year – and nothing about farm program payments, crop insurance or any other of the conventional targets of congressional confusion. The political demagoguery over food stamps transcends the ag panel and is now the rallying cry for House Democrats pre-November elections. No wonder House Speaker John Boehner (R, OH) has so far refused to set aside floor time for the bill.
My simplistic suggestion – and this obviously made with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight – is to take the nutrition title out of the Farm Bill and move it on its own.
This has been done before – we’ve carved out must-pass sections of omnibus legislation mired in politics, tacked them to other bills or voted them on their own. Let the “omnibus federal nutrition bill” rise or fall. Allow those members for whom food stamps are so important lobby for floor time to explain and promote current federal spending. Let members’ votes be recorded on whether the federal government should spend “nearly $1 trillion” over 10 years on the 43 million or so Americans currently receiving food stamps, just as the votes should be recorded on whether farmers and ranchers are worth the federal dollars they seek.
It’s clear the lumping of mainly rural programs with mainly urban programs isn’t working, and I’d submit it’s due to the mutual lack of understanding and support for the respective programs. Now would be the time to split this package in two and let the individual programs rise or fall on their own merit.
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