By Christine Harbin Hanson
With the government shut down and hitting the impending debt ceiling breach, it’s no wonder that the Farm Bill has lost the national spotlight. Farm programs expired on September 30, the same day the government initially shutdown, with little public notice. This afternoon, while the White House and House Republicans were busy negotiating a debt ceiling deal, the House of Representatives quietly voted to send the Farm Bill to conference, pushing this bloated trillion dollar bill even closer to President Obama’s desk.
Congress should pause. There’s danger in going to conference because conferees may bring food stamps and farm programs back together.
As we’ve previously discussed on the AFP blog, the most important change to come out of the Farm Bill debate in Congress this past summer was splitting the Farm Bill in two: food stamps and farm programs. In June, the House passed a bill that would shift food stamp programs to a different authorization schedule, from five years to three years, effectively separating them from farm programs. Farm Bill conferees should ensure that this provision makes it into any future conference report.
Separating the authorization schedules will not fix all of the Farm Bill’s problems, but it will be a step in the right direction, as AFP has said all along. By considering food programs and farm programs separately, Congress can evaluate each on its own merits. Lawmakers could no longer roll these parts together in order to shield them from reforms and fast-track them into law. Instead, it could incorporate sorely-needed reforms to crop insurance premium subsidies, commodity price supports, and eliminate the corporate handouts in U.S. farm programs. It could also find ways to balance providing a safety net for low-income Americans who truly need the help while finding protections for taxpayers.
At the same time, Congress should avoid using the Farm Bill as deficit reduction in a grand deal involving the debt-ceiling deal or the continuing resolution. On paper, the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill would reduce spending on farm programs and food stamps—but this is due to Washington budget gimmicks. In absolute terms, the versions of the Farm Bill that came out of Congress this summer were bigger and more bloated than ever. We need substantive reforms to farm programs, not double counting the savings from cutting subsidies. Congress should not rush; it should not slip this into a grand deal.
Going to conference is the latest in the Farm Bill saga. Congress couldn’t come to an agreement on the Farm Bill in 2012, choosing instead to include a straight-extension of Farm Programs in the Fiscal Cliff deal this past January. The Senate passed a full, five-year version of the Farm Bill in June, and the House passed a “farm only” Farm Bill in July and a SNAP bill in August. By and large, most changes were minor tweaks to current programs that fell far short of true reform. The versions of the Farm Bill that came out from both chambers of Congress remain bloated spending bills in dire need for reform.
The least-worst thing that Congress can do on the Farm Bill right now is to extend current law for another year. They need to take the time to consider free market reforms to food and farm programs, without being distracted by hitting the debt ceiling or starting the government back up.