What do you think the big Farm Bill that Congress passes ever 4 or 5 years is all about? Crop subsidies? Crop Insurance? Price supports? Export programs? Soil and land conservation?
If you think that is what the modern day Farm Bill is mostly about, you're still living in 1955. In fact, if you think the Farm Bill is about farmers, you're probably still living in 1955. It hasn't been for quite a few years now, and that explains, in part, why the current Congress has been unable to pass a new Farm Bill during this session. The last Farm Bill was passed under George Bush's presidency, in 2008. It has expired.
The current Congress has proven incapable and unwilling to pass a new one. And a big reason is that it is no longer a "Farm Bill."
It is a Clusterfuck. And it's a damned shame. And it needn't be this way. But it is a fine example of most of what is dysfunctional in Washington these days. Partisanship, overly broad legislation, and a tendency on the part of both parties to couple dissimilar issues into one big humongous Bill, so that they can engage in hostage taking.
The losers are us. Isn't it always the case? To cut to the chase, and answer the question I pose in this diary's title...A Farm Bill is no longer a Farm Bill when 80 cents of every appropriated dollar goes to Food Stamps, and less than 20 cents goes to the farmer.
Before you break out into hives, I am all for the Food Stamp Program...I just think it should be uncoupled from the Farm Bill. To use an agricultural metaphor...they are apples and oranges.
Let's make it really easy to understand...If I gave you a recipe for Onion Soup, and it called for one onion and 5 pounds of tomatoes...Is that onion soup? Or tomato soup?
If you think back upon this year, and the weather we had, and the impact it has had upon farmers...it is more than a little hard to believe that the Farm Bill was not passed early on in the negotiating process. Spring came early in many parts of the country, followed by either a second cold snap or unseasonable rains. Early on this year it was obvious that the weather was going to be challenging for farmers.
In Michigan, virtually the entire cherry crop was a loss. Fruit growers in many northern tier states were hammered by a mild winter and early spring that caused trees to flower early, only to be hit with late frosts and heavy rains. Once summer was upon us, things hardly got better. June and July set records as the hottest and driest months since the Dust Bowl Era, and the prolonged drought in much of the Farm Belt, while ultimately reducing grain yields less than early worst case scenarios, nonetheless caused great financial harm to farmers in many areas.
Yet, against this backdrop, Congress could not, and would not, come together to pass a new Farm Bill as the 2008 legislation expired. Republicans, aghast at the exploding rolls of Americans receiving Food Stamps, and the program's exploding costs, dug in, insisting on significant cuts to the program. Under Boehner's "leadership", the House refused to even schedule a vote on the Farm Bill unless concessions on cost cuts in Food Stamps were agreed to by Democrats. In the Senate, Alabama's Jeff Sessions has almost made this his cause celebre over the past year. He is shocked, shocked that so many more people are receiving Food Stamps today than 10 years ago. He shouldn't be.
Prior to 2008, the preceding Farm Bill was crafted by a Republican controlled Congress, and signed into law by a Republican president, in 2002. While Sen. Sessions has been making nefarious allegations that president Obama has actively inflated the Food Stamp rolls by engaging in behind the scenes outreach efforts to enroll "non-citizens" into the program, that provision was added to the "Farm Bill" in 2002. He voted for it. President Bush's USDA was the first to begin this outreach effort to Spanish speaking legal residents in the U.S. Sessions likes to hold up charts showing that the number of "non-citizens" on Food Stamps has quadrupled in the past 10 years. While that may be true, he built that...along with his fellow Republicans in Congress in 2002.
There are may reasons why the number of Americans receiving Food Stamps has exploded over the past decade. One could start with Clinton's "welfare reform", transitioning people from "welfare to work." For many of them, the work they were able to find didn't pay a living wage. Then there was the first Bush recession, coupled with the 2002 Farm Bill which significantly increased Food Stamp availability and eased eligibility requirements. In 2008, that Farm Bill was crafted during Democratic control of Congress, and eligibility guidelines were again loosened. Bush vetoed that Bill, but Congress overrode the veto. In the Senate, 12 Republicans broke with the Party to override...including Sen. Sessions.
But so what? The point is, what does the Food Stamp program any longer have to do with the Farm Bill? They are two separate concerns, with a completely different constellation of issues and constituencies. They should be decoupled. Put Food Stamps, which are part of the social safety net, firmly under the purview and budget of the Department of Health & Human Services. It's funding should be a separate piece of legislation, negotiated on its own merits. The remaining, purely agricultural aspects of the true Farm Bill are complex enough, and deserve their own debate. There is much to reform and improve just on issues of crop subsidies, federally subsidized crop insurance, land conservation and issues related to farm land runoff into our waterways, and the 800 lb gorilla in the room...our misguided mandates which divert corn into ethanol production.
That last issue alone is the cause of much of the financial distress in American agriculture today. It has resulted in a doubling of corn prices, which have caused poultry, livestock and dairy operations so much distress. 3rd generation dairy farmers are going out of business. Dairy herds have been culled at an alarming rate due to rising feed costs. Milk and dairy product prices are rapidly rising, which also impacts the food budgets of everyone of us. Poultry prices are likewise going up, and so many breeding sows and cattle have been slaughtered due to feed prices and lack of hay do to the drought, that 2013 will see significant inflation in the price of meat. The drought hurt, but the ethanol program really exacerbated this situation.
But the 20% of the tab for a Farm Bill that addresses the concerns of farmers should not be held up due to wrangling over the 80% of the Bill's tab that goes for Food Stamps. At roughly $80 billion annually, the Food Stamp program should be a separate and stand alone appropriation Bill. As it stands, both Parties can hold constituencies hostage that they, incorrectly, view as being beholden to their political adversary.
So, in the end, nothing gets done. At least not when the action is needed.
11:29 AM PT: For anyone who is at all interested in the nuts and bolts of the Farm Bill, and where the money goes, you can't find a better resource than the Environmental Working Group's website:
Another great resource is the blog Food Politics:
and Grist: http://grist.org/