Divorce Proceedings: A SNAP-less Farm Bill Appears Imminent

The House moves to separate nutrition assistance and ag subsidies, citing urgent need to schedule a vote.
Activists in Los Angeles protest a House plan to cut SNAP by more than $20 billion last month. (Photo by: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Jul 10, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

It’s been weeks since the House of Representatives rejected the renewed version of the Farm Bill, and there still doesn’t appear to be any compromise on the horizon. The sticking point between House Republicans and Democrats is the proposed $20.5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides more than 47 million low-income Americans with food.

This week an increasingly common proposal for addressing the stalemate has been heard reverberating throughout the Capitol Building: Split the nutrition assistance programs off from the rest of the Farm Bill, vote on the agriculture subsidy portion immediately, and address SNAP at a later date.

As the end of the current Farm Bill extension looms, this is a plan House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), who had shepherded farm legislation through his committee only to see it fail in last month’s surprising floor vote, begrudgingly supports and reportedly approved Tuesday.

“It’s not his preference to split the bill, but he wants to get a new Farm Bill enacted and will do what’s necessary to accomplish that goal,” Lucas spokeswoman Tamara Hinton told The Huffington Post.

After 62 Republicans joined 170 Democrats to kill a $940 billion version of the Farm Bill in the House on June 20, a chorus of often divergent voices began to call for splitting up the nutrition programs and the farm-subsidy funding. The idea gained support from Paul Ryan, Bloomberg Businessweek, numerous think tanks, and the editorial boards of several major newspapers.

A July 5 Boston Globe editorial called the killing of the House bill a “blessing in disguise” because of how it would have kicked 2 million Americans off of food stamps with its cuts. The solution, the editorial board asserted, was to separate food stamps from farm subsidies.

“In the current political climate, the combination of nutrition and farm programs in the same bill makes it difficult to critically examine either—especially if the debate about SNAP’s efficacy is tied to the lobbying interests of major agribusinesses fighting to keep farm subsides intact,” read the editorial.

But not so fast, says Parke Wilde, Associate Professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. He sees this latest push as “brinksmanship” on the part of the House Republicans—pushing the bill to the brink of expiration to achieve a desired result. Wilde tells TakePart that the House GOP knows splitting SNAP off makes it easier for “a non-SNAP rump of a bill” to pass with Republican votes alone. In fact, he says, the House leadership probably would not require any Democratic votes to pass the non-SNAP part of the Farm Bill. Brinksmanship, he warns, usually results in “ugly fistfights and dreadful policy.”

And last week, Lucas and fellow agriculture committee leadership received a letter signed by more than 500 farm groups urging the House not to split the bill because it would potentially be a “jarring disruption to the historic coalition of urban, rural and conservation groups.”

Is a split inevitable? Parke Wilde, for one, can’t imagine Democrats would allow a move to be made that would effectively kill any leverage they have for maintaining a strong nutritional safety net. Others say splitting the bill could, in fact, garner more votes, but might result in the bill being killed in conference when it is sent back to the Senate. Instead, Wilde asserts, compromise must be reached on the current bill, as it affects both farmers and Americans on nutrition benefits.

“I wish sensible legislators who care about all Americans, including farmers and low-income Americans, would take a look where this is going and strike a reasonable bargain,” he says.