Congress passes a “farm bill” about every five years, to set spending levels for the massive federal food-stamp bureaucracy and regulate the generous irrigation of farmers’ bank accounts. The bill is always ostensibly chock-full of reforms and adjustments, yet it almost never gets much better.
This time is no different, and wasn’t even before a House–Senate conference stripped out a number of good Republican reforms. The House has passed the final bill anyway, and while we don’t have high hopes for the Senate, senators of both parties ought to demand a better bill rather than endorse such a meaningless improvement on the status quo.
In theory, the bill will spend less than would be spent under current law. But the “savings” — $16.6 billion — touted by House and Senate leaders are not just insignificant and unlikely to materialize; they also will take ten years to accumulate, in a bill that’s intended to cover only the next five years (the five-year savings are around $5 billion, 1 percent of the bill’s outlays over that time).
The vast majority of the bill’s spending is on food stamps — about $750 billion worth over the next ten years. House Republicans got just one serious, sensible reform in the final version, of the several they had managed to pass out of their chamber: “Heat and eat,” a loophole that encouraged states to make nominal contributions toward citizens’ utility bills in order to qualify them for greater food-stamp aid, is finally dead. But other “categorical eligibility” problems remain: A person with low income but significant assets, for instance, can still get food stamps. Most important, states aren’t given any power to require that long-term recipients of food stamps look for work, enroll in job training, or take jobs.
The massive explosion of the food-stamp program in recent years is almost entirely due to the anemic economy. But that doesn’t obviate the good sense of making beneficiaries try to find work, especially for single, childless adults, as the House modestly proposed.
The political harvest for farmers this year, though it makes up just about a fifth of the bill, remained robust. Land-conservation programs will be cut, in large part because corn and wheat producers are doing so well that they have little interest in offering up their land for preservation, and direct payments, an obviously ridiculous and easily transparent program, will be eliminated. Most of the savings — especially in the short term — will go into subsidizing even more crop insurance and beginning new programs to compensate farmers for lower-than-expected prices.
This may not sound, on its face, as bad as writing farmers checks every year based solely on how many acres they own. But having the taxpayer pick up almost two-thirds of farmers’ insurance premiums, and cutting checks straight to insurers for all the administrative costs, isn’t really better. Moreover, unlike the direct payments they help replace, these programs potentially run afoul of international trade rules, opening the U.S. up to new trade disputes.
Many crop prices are near all-time highs, and if they drop as expected, new loss-protection programs could — likely will — cost billions more than the CBO calculates. This could easily wipe out the “savings” on farm subsidies, much of which won’t come until the fifth year and later anyway, when a new bill will be up for consideration.
Speaker Boehner waged a yeoman’s fight to block a new dairy program, which would have granted USDA the power to impose production quotas on dairy farms to help prop up prices, at huge potential cost to the rest of the dairy production chain. But this program, which the House kept out of the conference bill, was merely proposed — killing it could be scored a real victory only if the CBO got into the punditry game. The rest of our rotten milk-subsidy system remains, $912 million richer over the next ten years than it will be if Congress passes nothing.
The farm section of the misnamed bill is likely, on balance, worse than current law. It may well turn out even worse than it’s projected. Ultimately conservatives would like massive changes to this quinquennial fraud: Food stamps and agriculture subsidies should be separated, with the latter going to the slaughterhouse. (Some of the benefits of doing the second, we might add, will show up at your supermarket.)
That is a lot to ask from Congress. But modest positive reforms — more than a 1 percent cut, perhaps — should not be too much to expect. This bill doesn’t have them.