Ag Policy Blog

Splitting Farm Bill Programs Not a Policy Panacea

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Well, I'm back. My fishing as not improved, but a camping out at a lake is still a good getaway. I found the secret to enjoying time off is to avoid responding to the sky-is-falling emails that kept popping up throughout the week.

I was able to keep up to speed with some of the articles and op-ed pieces about the farm bill. Sitting lakeside late Thursday I went back and forth between two competing thoughts. One, why is it I can only catch bluegill? Two, what do supporters of farm programs think would happen if they got their wish and the food-and-nutrition programs were separated from farm policy?

Clearly, the farm bill's chances in the House got a boost late in the week when House Speaker John Boehner said he is going to vote for the legislation despite some reservations. “I’m going to vote for the farm bill to make sure that the good work of the Agriculture Committee and whatever the floor might do to improve this bill gets to a conference so that we can get the kind of changes that people want in our nutrition programs and in our farm programs,” Boehner said in an Associated Press article by Mary Clare Jalonick.…

The House Rules Committee will hold its hearing late Monday afternoon on the debate process and amendments that will get a floor debate for the bill, H.R. 1947, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013.

One amendment being championed would split the nutrition programs, which account for about 80% of USDA spending, from farm programs. Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a Republican from Indiana, told reporters he was working on this amendment and thinks there would be support for breaking apart a longstanding coalition of nutrition and farm groups. Stutzman was quoted by Wayne (Ind.) Journal-Gazette making the case for the split.

"It is really conflicting to a lot of people,” Stutzman said. “You have ag policy, and then you have a welfare program. It’s back to the unholy alliance that’s been developed, why this bill is so expensive, why it’s a trillion-dollar, so-called farm bill.”…

Stutzman's comment was made with belief that the panacea for getting farm policy passed is just a matter of dropping the welfare from the farm bill.

Nearly half of the $39 billion in projected cuts come from farm programs. Still, much of the public argument against the House bill is that farmers could afford more cuts. A few conservative groups are arguing for nutrition cuts, but most major media question why those programs are being targeted for cuts.

Over the past week, the most aggressive public cases being made to shake up the farm bill came from Environmental Working Group and the Heritage Foundation. Each group launched a heavy barrage of criticism from the left and the right. While Heritage challenged food programs, EWG and Heritage both kept making the case that more cuts are needed to farm programs. In particular, the left-right combo punched at the costs of crop insurance.

East and West Coast columnists are able to draw out the appearance of congressional hypocrisy with House Agriculture Committee members willing to argue for cuts to the food-stamp program (SNAP) while also collecting farm-program payments. Mark Bittman's piece in the New York Times was headlined "Welfare for the Wealthy." Bittman highlighted the farm payments of Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., a cotton farmer, as well as Fincher quoting the Bible when defending SNAP cuts.…

In the Los Angeles Times, columnist Michael Hiltzik had perhaps an even more stinging column, "Families on food stamps would suffer while farms get fat." Hiltzik pointed to Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., receiving payments as a rice farmer and how the new farm bills would raise target prices for rice farmers while making it harder for people to sign up for SNAP. LaMalfa also had indicated that churches and people could do more to help the poor than a government program.…

As Hiltzik wrote, "LaMalfa's words reflected a familiar theme in congressional debate, which is that the recipients of payouts like farm subsidies are honest, hardworking folks while those getting food stamps (or other low-income relief) should be grateful at the help they get and shut up otherwise."

The Heritage Foundation began a column in the Daily Caller, a conservative news site, over the weekend by questioning Boehner's support for the bill. Daren Bakst, the Heritage fellow who wrote the piece, agreed that, yes, nutrition and farm programs can be separated. "It would be more honest — and more transparent — if farm programs and food stamps were not lumped together in a single bill."

In looking at farm programs, Bakst later added, "There’s bipartisan support for reforming the most expensive farm program, crop insurance. Even President Obama has pushed reforms that would rein in that program’s skyrocketing costs. Under the House bill, those costs would actually rise.

"The House bill is not all bad. It would, for example, eliminate the direct payment program — the subsidy program that pays farmers even if they don’t grow crops. Such a move is long overdue.

"Unfortunately, the bill includes new taxpayer-funded programs that could be even costlier: a shallow loss program and a reference price program."…

So, perhaps there is still time in this farm-bill debate for agriculturalists to consider just how far they are willing to go in segregating farm policy from programs such as SNAP. Do farm groups really want that vote to split the policies, programs and spending? They might want to question whether programs such as target prices and shallow-loss crop insurance would survive the process unscathed.

I can be found on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN


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John Olson
6/17/2013 | 5:51 AM CDT
Millions annually to a select few is insane. See And millions Fincher is quoted as getting does't even include millions in federal crop insurance subsidies he is receiving.
Bonnie Dukowitz
6/17/2013 | 5:39 AM CDT
If ag related interests would start using the proper title, most of the hype would ebb. Food Bill, Jobs Bill, Food Security Act,?? Take your pick. Eliminate the production end of the 'Food Bill' and the cost of the "SNAP" end would escalate at a rate higher than BamaCare.