Election-Year Moves Stall Huge Farm Bill

Published July 25, 2012

The U.S. Senate has passed the 2012 Farm Bill with a vote of 64-35 but the bill was pulled from the House calendar just before Members adjourned for their August recess after it became clear there were not enough votes to pass it.

Some House members balked at its huge price tag, arguing too much of the money would go toward food stamp spending.

Of the $969 billion the bill proposes to spend over 10 years, nearly 80 percent would go toward the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps. The legislation also funds a myriad of federal programs including wetland conservation, crop price supports, crop insurance, energy, and school lunches.

Eighty-two House members from both sides of the aisle had sent a letter urging the leadership to send the bill to the floor for a vote. However, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) apparently decided not to give the bill floor time before the 2012 elections.

At the same time, agriculture committee leaders in the House and Senate reportedly are hoping to pull together support for a five-year bill to be voted on by Sept. 30, when the current farm bill would expire.

Time Running Short

Negotiations on a final version likely would be conducted behind closed doors where the Senate and House bills would be reconciled into a single piece of legislation. It would then be voted on as a “must pass” bill during Congress’s lame deck session that starts in November.

Among the issues stalling the bill’s passage is an expanded crop insurance program that would replace many of the subsidies farmers currently receive. This would provide money to farmers during seasons with poor harvests but avoid granting price supports in years with high revenues.

Farm bill defenders say the crop insurance provision would save billions of dollars in direct payment subsidies that farmers receive regardless of whether they plant crops. However, critics argue it would encourage farmers to grow high-risk crops and create more exposure for taxpayers.

‘Crop Insurance Keeps Giving’

“This is better [from a farmer’s perspective] than a government bailout,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group in Washington, DC. “A bailout is a one-time thing when something bad happens. But crop insurance keeps giving, good or bad. And it’s about to give even more.”

“In estimating the cost of these new shallow-loss insurance proposals, CBO has assumed that recent record commodity prices are sustainable,” said R Street Public Affairs Director R.J. Lehmann. “If prices fall, the cost of the programs could easily erase all of the supposed savings in both the House and Senate Farm Bill proposals. These new programs are taxpayer-funded boondoggles that encourage cultivation of lands most prone to floods and erosion, and whose benefits will flow disproportionately to the largest and wealthiest agricultural producers.”

Free market advocates see the expiration of the current farm program as an opportunity to wean the agricultural sector from government dependence.

“Many of the programs of the current farm legislation will expire in September,” writes Dr. Susan Berry, a columnist for breitbart.com.  “As conservatives are aptly making the point that free market principles, rather than taxpayer-funded subsidies to soften the effects of risk-taking, should decide costs of products, shouldn’t the same philosophy guide our new farm legislation? Shouldn’t lawmakers insist that taxpayers not fund private entrepreneurial business ventures, one of which happens to be agriculture?”

‘Going to Have to Cut’

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said in a bloggers conference call that the 2012 Farm Bill is not only ill-conceived, but poorly timed given the current economic conditions.

“At some point we are going to have to cut some spending,” said Jordan. “This is going to cost taxpayers a boatload of money.”

Another issue concerning Jordan is the bill’s expansion of the USDA’s food stamp program.  “Apparently, 1 in 7 in the population think that it is okay for someone else to feed them,” Jordan said. There are currently 46 million people receiving food stamps nationwide.

Also participating in the conference call was American Commitment President Phil Kerpen, who argued food stamps should not be included in the farm bill but considered separately.

“They should be separate pieces of legislation,” Kerpen said. “This is actually $70 billion more. It is a 22 percent increase in funding. We should not be increasing this at all.”

Food Stamp Spending Surges

Food stamp spending has more than doubled since 2007, going from $30 billion to $72 billion, according to the CBO.

While increasing spending on traditional food stamp programs, the farm bill does end automatic enrollment in SNAP’s heating bill subsidy program known as LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program).

But critics of the farm bill’s gargantuan price tag do not find solace in that one small spending cut.

“For all of their Tea Party bluster, the House Republicans have proposed a wasteful, big-government program that disrupts the private market, spends billions of taxpayer dollars that we don’t have, and harms the environment,” R Street President Eli Lehrer said. “If Republicans are serious about cutting government, they need to start from scratch.”

Tim Kelly ([email protected]) is political cartoonist, a policy advisor and columnist for the Future of Freedom Foundation, and a correspondent for Radio America’s Special Investigator.