Senate Actions on Farm Bill Signal Little Desire to Control Spending

June 17, 2013

By Christine Harbin

Actions speak louder than words, and the Senate’s recent actions on the 2013 Farm Bill speak to Washington’s complete lack of seriousness in getting spending under control. This year’s version is bigger and more bloated than ever, but that didn’t stop Senators from blocking cuts and reforms before passing it.

Senators filled literally hundreds of amendments to the Farm Bill, but they held votes on only 11 of them. This means that Senators could signal that they support reform without having to vote for any. They could talk tough about cutting spending without actually cutting anything.

Looking closer at the vote counts, Senators overwhelmingly blocked cuts and reforms during the amendment process. They rejected the Shaheen-Toomey amendment that would make modest reforms to the federal sugar program, for example. And even though they approved an amendment that would limit crop insurance subsidies to $750,000 AGI, this provision won’t even kick in right away. The amendment says that the federal government has to conduct a study on the proposal before enacting it.

Additionally worrisome, Senators approved a Leahy amendment that would dramatically expand the rural broadband program in the Farm Bill. This problematic program should be eliminated, not expanded.

Not only did Senators leave farm programs largely intact, they made no real changes to food stamp spending in the bill. Early in the amendment process, Senators voted down two proposals that would have brought much-need restraint to this program that has literally quadrupled over the last decade. Senators rejected a Roberts amendment that would close many of the loopholes that states use to expand eligibility, saving $30 billion over the next decade. They also rejected an Inhofe amendment that would merge federal nutrition programs into a single block grant for states, which would save over $300 billion.

In their own defense, members in both chambers of Congress will bring up the talking point that they cut the direct payments program, saving $5 billion per year. This may be true, but it’s not the whole truth. They’re replacing the program with another program that will cost even more. In exchange for cutting direct payments, both the Senate and House versions of the bill include massive new revenue-guarantee program that will cost even more. Agricultural economists at the American Enterprise Institute estimate that this program will cost $8-14 billion per year.

This does not bode well for future overall spending reform. If Congress can’t cut spending in this bloated welfare bill disguised as the Farm Bill, then how can it cut spending elsewhere? If Congress can’t stand up against special interests in agribusiness, then how can it stand up to those in other industries?

There are many reasons to be skeptical. Many of the members that seem to be the most allergic to cutting spending bill are Republicans, the purported party of fiscal restraint and limited government. Last week in the Senate, 18 Republicans voted in support of passing the Farm Bill. These include: Alexander (R-TN), Wicker (R-MS), Vitter (R-LA), Moran (R-KS), Johanns (R-NE), Isakson (R-GA), Hoeven (R-ND), Grassley (R-IA), Blunt (R-MO), Boozman (R-AR), Graham (R-SC), Fischer (R-NE), Burr (R-NC), Collins (R-ME), Cochran (R-MS), Coats (R-IN), Chiesa (R-NJ), and Chambliss (R-GA).

Politicians find it easy to pledge to rein in spending in media interviews and in campaign speeches, but they have difficulty putting them into practice. Congress should remember its promises of fiscal restraint when the hard votes come up. When the House takes up the Farm Bill this week, Representatives should be bolder than the Senate in seeking spending savings in Farm Bill programs. Supporting reckless spending levels is not why their constituents sent them to Washington.

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