By Christine Harbin Hanson
Tonight after most people in Washington had left their offices to go home for the day, the Farm Bill conference committee delivered its long-awaited report. Crafted by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, this 950-page deal reconciles the differences in the versions of the Farm Bill that passed the House and the Senate this past summer. Here at Americans for Prosperity, we’re disappointed that full, 5-year deal on the Farm Bill excludes most of the reforms that we’ve been calling for over the past two years.
The timing of the announcement is noteworthy. Releasing the Farm Bill conference report the night before President delivers his State Of The Union address means that it will see little attention in the media. Tomorrow the news cycle will focus on the issues that the President will discuss in his speech—healthcare, income inequality, immigration, etc. The Farm Bill will not be a focus of the speech, which means that it will get nowhere near the level of attention it deserves.
Diving into the policy details, this conference report seriously disappoints. It continues the status quo of broken farm programs and unchecked food stamp spending.
Overall, this Farm Bill spends way too much. This deal authorizes a trillion dollars in spending over the next decade, representing an increase over the 2008 farm law. (This is on the heels of the $1 trillion pork-filled omnibus appropriations bill that Congress agreed to earlier this month.) This deal shifts most of the spending cuts to the out-years in the budget window, when they will probably never be realized. As we’ve discussed before on the AFP blog, scoring a 5-year bill over 10 years hides the true cost of Farm Bill programs—these are phantom Farm Bill savings. Farm Bill proponents argue that this conference report will reduce the deficit, but this claim woefully relies on Washington budget gimmicks.
One of the biggest disappointments in the conference report is that it remarries the unholy alliance of food and farm programs. AFP applauded the House of Representatives for moving farm programs and food stamps to different authorization schedules this past summer, and we called on Farm Bill conferees to keep them separate in their conference report. Separating these two parts of the Farm Bill is the first step toward meaningful reforms (although it’s not an end in itself), and it would allow Congress to critically evaluate each part without being distracted by the other.
Looking closer at farm programs, this conference report cements the corporate welfare policies that have defined U.S. farm programs for far too long. It doesn’t eliminate the redundant catfish inspection program, for instance. Although it does reportedly eliminate the widely-criticized direct payment program, it expands a number of other corporate welfare programs such as crop insurance premium subsidies and revenue guarantees. In addition, although the dairy’s supply management program that House Speaker Boehner criticizes is excluded, the conference report includes premium reductions to help dairy farms, essentially cancelling the benefit.
The downsides don’t stop there. The conference report also provides disappointingly few reforms to the nation’s food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which accounts for around 80 percent of Farm Bill spending.
The one silver lining on this dark cloud is the fact that it closes the so-called LIHEAP loophole at the state level. This limits the provision that allows people to be automatically eligible (in the technical term, “categorically” eligible) for food stamp benefits based on their participation on other specified government programs at the state level, such as heating assistance. This saves around $8 billion over the next decade. The conference report doesn’t eliminate categorical eligibility completely, however; states still have a number of ways to sweep more people onto SNAP regardless of whether they meet the federal financial requirements. The conference committee should have included additional taxpayer protections such as income tests, so as to ensure that food stamp beneficiaries are truly low-income and not just gaming the system.
This conference report is a huge disappointment for advocates of limited government and spending control. Congress missed an opportunity to go back to the drawing board on food and farm policy. Lawmakers may think that nobody was watching when they released this bloated conference report, but they would be wrong. Congress may vote on the conference report as soon as Wednesday—lawmakers should know that millions of people at the grassroots level are paying close attention to their actions (or rather, their inactions) on this issue.
Christine Harbin Hanson is the Federal Affairs Manager for Americans for Prosperity