Thursday, July 11, 2013

Missing the Point

An unloved, unloveable Farm Bill

Today in a vote largely along party lines, the House of Representatives approved a Farm Bill. The majority party got all but 6 of its members to vote for the bill while none of minority party did.

The day on the House floor saw a lot of emotion. Rep. Frank Lucas (OK-03) claimed this was the best bill the Agriculture committee could produce. Rep. Corrine Brown (FL-05) shouted "shame" on the majority for bringing the bill to a vote. Some members predicted starving children; others, the end of farming in the United States. After the vote, Rep. Louie Gohmert (TX-01) spoke of dependency on welfare and the Garden of Eden. (Yeah, I didn't get it either.) Our representative, Gerry Connolly, called the vote a "pyrrhic victory" for the majority.

Like much legislation, the issues are neither clear nor clean. House Resolution 2642 attempted something radical: separate the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as "food stamps") from farm subsidies and agricultural "market stabilization" (government intervention, in other words). But it differed greatly from the Senate's version and was not in line with the President's budget proposal. So what's in HR 2642 and what's not?

No SNAP. This is the $743 billion (over 10 years) gorilla in the room. While we may call it a "farm bill", SNAP and other food assistance programs account for about 80% of the cost. It's long been an open secret that if city folk vote for crop subsidies, country folk will vote for SNAP. Well, that broke down. What do the two have to do with one another? Nothing. While heard repeatedly on the House floor that you can't have nutrition without farm policy, it's not true. Farmers are doing quite well, thank you. And yes, there are hungry kids in America. But the two are not connected.

Fewer direct crop subsidies but more subsidized insurance. While it was right for the House to scale back market-skewing crop subsidies, it was wrong to continue with interference in the business of farming. In America, we romanticize farming – particularly small family farms. But farming is a business. Are farms more valuable to national interests than other family-run small businesses?

No renewable energy support. The President was looking for about $4 billion/year savings from cuts to crop subsidies with an increase in renewable energy funding. HR 2642 offered about $1 billion/year in savings with no increase in renewables. With the boom in natural gas, the push for renewables seems unnecessary but true to form. The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) continues to require ethanol mixed with gasoline to the detriment of fuel and food consumers.

I really don't like when Congress bundles unrelated items in a bill; it does all programs a disservice and clouds the judgement of legislators. Let's make SNAP about nutrition, not food sales. Let's end business subsidies and favoritism. Let's stop supporting marginally valuable energy programs.

There is hunger in America and SNAP can help. But it's too broad and is truly a sop for farmers in its inclusion in the farm bill. Nutrition needs to be addressed as a public health issue, not as a agricultural or business issue.