Let’s Break Up the Farm Bill?

Following the legislation’s failure in the House, many are calling for food assistance to be split from agriculture spending.

the farm bill breakup

Do we still need to consider the safety nets for the poor and for farmers in the Farm Bill? (Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

Defying the longstanding wisdom that the Farm Bill, with its unique combination of agriculture and food-assistance funding, is an easy bipartisan sell, the GOP-led House voted against its own version of the legislation last week.

Now, never mind the signs of the breakdown of rural Republican-urban Democrat coalition that so many are talking about in wake of the defeat—like Congress failing to pass a Farm Bill in 2012. No, the focus now is on what’s next: the decoupling of the “unholy alliance” of food assistance and agricultural subsidy programs.

That’s right, it’s time for a Farm Bill breakup. When Paul Ryan, the Chicago Tribune editorial board, Bloomberg Businessweek, and approximately 543 libertarian think tanks all agree on something, it has to be a good idea, right?

Some have been agitating for a split since before the bill failed. And since everyone is jumping on the bandwagon now, Marlin Stutzman, a Republican rep from Indiana, is officially the I-prefer-their-earlier-works-on-vinyl hipster lawmaker when it comes to Farm Bill divorce. Stutzman, a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer, filed an amendment on June 17 that would have created what he called a “ ‘farm-only’ farm bill” that didn’t touch on food assistance.

Now, Paul Ryan, who talked about the potential breakup on Morning Joe recently, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor are getting behind Stutzman’s idea. In a story published by Bloomberg today, the Indiana Congressman said, “We have an opportunity to make common-sense reforms by splitting the bill into a real, farm-only farm bill and having an honest conversation about how Washington spends taxpayer money.”

Sounds like standard austerity talk that we’ve come to expect from House Republicans, right? But that honest conversation would, by definition, have to include discussion of what is now surely more that $1 million in taxpayer money his family has been paid through farm subsidy programs. In 2010, The Journal Gazette reported that The Stutzmans cashed $998,000 in federal checks between 1995 and 2010. Farmers in his district, Indiana’s 3rd, received $1,002,000,000 in subsidies between 1995 and 2012, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Would the SNAP-less Farm Bill envisioned by the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth—all groups that advocate for less government—be so generous?

Even the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune writes, “Farm subsidies, the obsolete, Soviet-style affronts to the free market, have got to go.” The editorial calls for ending direct payment and crop insurance—wholesale—in any extension that’s passed en lieu of an actual bill. But the board would prefer that Congress go further. “Better yet, start over,” reads the final line. “Break up the farm bill.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and the National Farmers Union have all dismissed the idea outright.

“It’s a sort of academic debate that we have,” Scott Faber, Vice President of Government Affairs at the Environmental Working Group, told me, deadpan, in an interview. “Like should we have a single food agency or have a colony on Mars—none of those things are going to happen, including splitting the Farm Bill in two.”

Stories about the potential breakup are sure to note when the marriage between food stamps and farm subsidies was consummated. Except they can’t quite agree on when the wedding took place. Bloomberg reports, “Food assistance has been part of farm legislation since 1977.” A National Journal story from before the vote locates the union “in the 1960s, when the declining rural population translated into fewer rural representatives in the House and fewer votes for the farm bill.”

Except the idea—and its practice—is much older. The first food assistance program, started in 1939, was run by the USDA and helped the hungry buy surplus crops with government-subsidized stamps. The poor could more readily buy food; the government could help regulate and support crop prices by selling off excess harvests. ‘We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other,” said Milo Perkins, who administered the original program. “We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across that chasm.” 

Contrary to popular conservative belief, that bridge not only still stands, but also remains relevant. “Certainly the subsidy programs couldn’t survive without being linked to SNAP,” says Faber.

Many attribute the revolt by conservative Republicans against their own party’s version of the Farm Bill to SNAP cuts not going far enough. If the bill had reduced food assistance funding even more, they would have voted for it. But that reasoning assumes the 62 nays on the GOP side are akin to Stutzman (himself a “no” vote), who might face a lot of resistance for family and constituents alike for voting for subsidy reform (read: cuts)—but for whom cutting SNAP has little political repercussions. For Tea Party Republicans, social welfare and corporate welfare are equally distasteful.

“Ironically, more subsidy reform is the only way to pass a Farm Bill through this house,” says Faber. “Ultimately that’s the cat nip for Tea Party Republicans, who would want even deeper cuts to SNAP, but are generally looking for more deficit reduction however they can get it.”

Beef Magazine, a trade publication for the cattle industry, posted a poll before the Farm Bill vote, asking readers if the cuts to SNAP went far enough. In the comments, one anonymous poster wrote, “It is time we separated the the [sic] Farm Bill from all the other freebies the gov't is giving out. Some people need to be more responsible for their own well-being. Even if it is having to work. Generations on welfare is not what the plan ever was is it?”

The commenter, who it seems fair to assume is tied to the agriculture industry, neglected to weigh in on subsidies.

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