Prospects of passing a new farm bill took a tumble last month when the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 was voted down 213 to 198 in the House. All signs point to yet another extension of the status quo rather than meaningful reform for the federal agriculture and food stamp programs.
The setback angered both sides, as Democrats denounced stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients and some Republicans expressed dismay that subsidy reform was ignored after bipartisan amendments to rein in crop payment programs were discarded without a vote.
Now, all eyes turn to the Senate Agriculture Committee to see if Chairman Roberts (R-KS) and Ranking Member Stabenow (D-MI) can produce a passable compromise while the House tries to regroup before a revote on June 22. Funding for agriculture programs is set to expire on September 30, so the deadline to send a bill to President Trump’s desk is quickly approaching.
Though dysfunction and failed votes are nothing new in Washington, the history of legislative irresolution on the farm bill makes this most recent failure all the more frustrating.
Ever since food stamps were first included in agriculture legislation during the 1970s, rural farm payment advocates and urban food stamp proponents have protected each other by refusing to enact major reform and pushing back against separation so the two programs could be independently restructured.
When Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in 1994 after 40 years in the minority, House Speaker Newt Gingrich tried to decentralize food stamps into a block grant program independent of the farm bill. However, the final iteration of the 1996 farm bill contained no such alterations due to opposition from both sides of the rural-urban consortium. In 2013, the House passed two bills that divorced food stamps and agriculture programs by setting up different timelines for renewal. Nevertheless, progress was once again thwarted when the bills were recombined during conference.
Both elements of the farm bill are unlikely to undergo systematic change if they continue to be packaged together. Currently, neither side has an incentive to criticize the other, but if a separation were to occur, reforms that reduce the debt, stabilize the market, and increase upward mobility would be attainable.
In the agricultural arena, major changes to the federal subsidy program are needed, as crop supports now promote special interests over rural communities. This government intervention has distorted the market, leading to inefficiency and excessive support.
Farmers are often paid twice for the same loss due to overlapping safety nets of commodity protections with simultaneous subsidization of crop insurance. Compounding the problem, subsidies have been distorted to favor larger farms. Small family farms make up 90 percent of all farms but only get 27 percent of commodity payments and 17 percent of insurance subsidies. Industrialized farms siphon away the majority of government support by taking advantage of loopholes and a poorly designed payout structure.
For food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the optimal long term goal is economic growth that lifts more Americans out of poverty. To encourage upward mobility, SNAP should be transformed into reciprocal program that pays out benefits to able-bodied adults without dependents who work or attend job training. This would encourage self-sufficiency over dependency, while not cutting off benefits for the elderly or those with children or disabilities.
Notably, overlap between the two programs is hard to spot, exposing how staunch defenders of food stamp inclusion in the farm bill are just playing politics to preserve subsidy streams. SNAP is wholly unrelated to agriculture policy, and it would be better dealt with alongside other welfare programs in the Department of Health and Human Services. Recent reports suggest the Trump administration would support this consolidation.
Past congressional actions to address increasing deficits offer hope that change is possible. Earmarks were banned in 2011 because their tendency to attract extraneous spending was recognized to outweigh their deal-broking power. A similar epiphany about the harms of the farm-nutrition alliance would do wonders to end the illusion that combining two unrelated policies together is the proper way to legislate.
While an all-encompassing farm bill may have seemed to be the only way to sustain the programs 50 years ago, the consequences of not implementing major reforms are evident in the rising debt and lower labor force participation. The latest vote in the House makes it clear that change is not going to come under the status quo of including SNAP in the farm bill. It is time for this unholy union to finally come to an end.
Stephen Vukovits is a contributor to Economics 21. Follow him on Twitter @svukovits.
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