Politics & Policy

The Farm Bill: As Ye Sow . . .

The farm bill defeated in the House of Representatives on Thursday deserved to go down. It represented only a modest loosening of the fervent embrace of Big Government by Big Agriculture, ending direct payments to farmers for merely growing (or not growing) their crops but using most of the savings to sweeten a number of other subsidies. Alas, this grab bag of often market-distorting giveaways enjoys broad bipartisan support and is the chief reason farm bills have been enthusiastically rubber-stamped by Congresses going back to 1973. So while the farm bill may well have deserved to go down, in the event it went down for the wrong reasons.

Chief among them is an amendment sponsored by Florida Republican Steve Southerland that would have given states the flexibility to require many adults who apply for or receive food-stamp benefits to work, seek work, or participate in job-training programs for 20 hours per week in order to maintain eligibility. The amendment was limited in scope to employable adults, and it excluded the disabled along with seniors and children. Though the work-requirement program was optional, designed to incentivize states to eliminate fraud and abuse, it would have allowed states to keep half the federal dollars they would have received for each person who gets off the rolls, and to use that money to promote the general welfare as they saw fit.

The Southerland amendment passed with a comfortable majority, but a number of House Democrats who might have otherwise supported the broader farm bill bolted on account of it. Some House Republicans say the amendment cost as many as 15 votes — not enough to have doomed the bill outright, but enough to give it the odor of defeat and encourage others to abandon it. This is unsurprising but unfortunate. The principle that the able-bodied should work and seek work as a condition of public assistance is at the heart of the successful 1996 welfare-reform regime. It reflects a commitment to a well-tailored safety net that helps the needy without encouraging a culture of dependency. It is also excellent political ground to be defending.

On the other hand, a number of Republicans voted against the bill because they found the cuts to the food-stamp program too modest. Food-stamp rolls have doubled since 2007, and we have argued that the program could weather greater cuts, especially cuts designed to kick in once labor markets return to normal. It may be both politically expedient and symbolically important for the House leadership to increase the size of the cuts should the farm bill come up again this year, to bring more fiscal conservatives on board and to go on record supporting a more aggressive management of the Obama welfare boom. But deeper cuts are politically trickier than are work requirements, and, considering the political situation — the president has promised a veto of large cuts desired by the House, while the less ambitious Senate bill was passed by a wide bipartisan majority — Republicans could be forgiven for banking what reductions they can get. That the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is coupled with agriculture at all is foolish, a pure political calculation designed to secure the support of urban representatives for the farm bill. It would be better for both welfare policy and farm policy if each were considered on its own merits.

Lastly, some Democrats seem to have balked at a Republican amendment that stripped the so-called Dairy Producer Margin Protection Program from the bill. Under it, participating farmers would have received “margin protection,” insurance that guarantees a cushion between production costs and dairy prices. But by signing up for the program, they would also have had to join a government-administered cartel for controlling the dairy supply. Then, if production margins fell below a trigger level, farmers would either have to shut down production — passing costs directly on to consumers by arbitrarily reducing supply — or face a stiff tax. We suppose “Dairy Producer Margin Protection Racket” didn’t have quite the same ring to it.

If snuffing out this program did hurt support for the farm bill, then pity the farm bill’s supporters, who apparently think that New Deal–era price controls and artificial scarcity are just the ticket for a 21st-century economy struggling to grow.

On balance, it would be better to have no farm bill at all — or, more precisely, to extend the status quo for another year — than to pass a bill that fails to address the food-stamp glut and enshrines our most backward instincts on agricultural policy for another five years. But considering the constellation of interests involved, the momentum behind passing some farm bill may be overwhelming. In that case, House Republicans retain the ability to effect a better outcome by passing a version that can gain near-universal GOP support and anchor negotiations with the Senate. They must do their best to separate the wheat from the chaff.



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