National Consumers League

Debate about the farm bill rages on in Congress

mythbusters292_green

By Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow For anyone interested in food and agricultural policy, the last month has been an exciting and tense one.  As both the House and the Senate took up long delayed farm bills, many advocates were hopeful that the final bill, which provides a foundation for important farm and nutrition programs, would finally pass after a year’s worth of delays.

Surprisingly, and to the shock of many who have followed its progress closely, the farm bill was voted down in the House.  The bill was defeated, ironically enough, by a group of bipartisan Congressmen. Democrats voted against the bill because of its draconian cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), and some Republicans voted against the bill because they felt the bill did not do enough to curtail spending.  This historic defeat of the farm bill has imparted some important lessons legislators and advocates would do well to heed before once again trying to pass the bill.

  1.  While it’s called the farm bill, SNAP is key.  Despite its name, somewhere around 76% of farm bill spending goes to nutrition programs.  It is this coupling that has for many years enabled the passage of expensive farm programs and continued funding of safety net programs which are unpopular with many Republicans.  As we’ve written before, there are many myths floating around about SNAP, and they serve to fuel strong and often heated debate.  Several amendments dealing with SNAP were offered during the floor debate on the bill, including mandatory drug testing and work requirements.  These amendments are largely credited with losing the necessary Democratic votes.
  2. Bipartisanship is integral to passing the farm bill.  Given that some Republicans feel that the farm bill should face even more drastic cuts than those proposed, the Republican leadership was counting on a handful of Democratic votes to help push the vote through.  Without these votes, it may prove impossible to get a farm bill passed.  This emphasizes the importance of reaching across the aisle when trying to get through “must pass” legislation, lessons we can only hope the leadership will take in mind while working on immigration reform and next year’s budget.
  3. Kicking the can down the road doesn’t always work.  When the farm bill came was about to expire last year in the midst of an election, House leadership refused to bring the bill to the floor.  Instead, they extended the old bill for one year, seemingly confident that the legislation could be passed after the election.  Last week’s vote proves that this was not the case.  The leadership will now have to come up with a new and innovative strategy to get the farm bill passed, a tricky prospect given the strong opinions on both sides of the issue.

While the vote surprised House leadership as well as those working on the farm bill, in the current climate, it was not entirely unforeseeable.  If recent action in Congress has taught us anything, it is that we can hardly predict what action that body will take.  For advocates, this should be an encouragement to pursue issues that may seem unlikely to pass.  And this unexpected vote gives us another chance to make sure important safety net programs like SNAP are fully funded, an opportunity we should not let go to waste.