Politics & Policy

Food Stamps Are Not a Farm Bill

The rise in food-stamp use is holding up the reauthorization of agriculture programs.

While earmarks no longer serve as congressional currency, lawmakers still find ways to engage in legislative logrolling. Nowhere is that more evident than in the misnamed “farm bill,” in which lawmakers wrap disparate issues — agriculture subsidies and the food-stamp program — into one piece of legislation.

It is one of Washington’s dirty little secrets: One reason lawmakers support massive spending on the food-stamp program is that it helps get farm programs passed. It’s all politics.

But even as this unholy alliance between rural lawmakers and their urban and suburban colleagues has held steady — the Senate Agriculture Committee cleared the 1,150-page, $955 billion bill in just three hours — it is undeniable that the shape of the “farm” bill is changing.

This year, 80 percent of the spending in the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act goes toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps. In 2002 and 2008, roughly two-thirds of “farm”-bill spending went toward food stamps.

Like most programs rooted in the New Deal and Great Society, the food-stamp program has experienced exponential growth. In the 1970s, when food stamps and agriculture subsidies became inextricably linked, only 2 percent of Americans received food benefits. In 2000, approximately 6 percent, or 17 million people, were on food stamps. Participation rates vary based on economic conditions, but over the last two decades, they ranged between 6 and 10 percent of Americans. Today, 15 percent of the U.S. population (nearly 48 million people) are dependent on food stamps — and we are three years into the Obama “recovery.”

Washington spends roughly $80 billion a year of taxpayer money on food stamps. The crisis is deepening, as half of all food-stamp spending goes toward individuals who have been on the program for eight years or more.

Our nation’s food-stamp epidemic really began with the 2002 farm bill, which dramatically expanded benefits and weakened eligibility standards. As a result, the cost of the program doubled between 2001 and 2006. Thanks to President Obama’s stimulus, it doubled once again between 2008 and 2012.

The Senate’s bill would essentially lock in that level of spending for the next decade. When we’re approaching $17 trillion in debt, a 0.5 percent reduction from stimulus-era spending simply doesn’t cut it. The bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee is almost as bad, shaving off just 2.5 percent.

Farm-state lawmakers should no longer assent to the crass legislative tactic of combining farm policy and food stamps; we must take note of the changing political dynamics. Instead of greasing the skids, the rapid growth in the use of food stamps is actually a major factor holding up the five-year reauthorization of agriculture programs.

Concerned Americans are working to ensure that legislative logrolling, such as earmarks, harms the reputations of lawmakers, instead of helping them. Responsible lawmakers will also recognize that fully informed discussion, let alone necessary reform, is all but impossible when the food-stamp program is carried under the banner of a farm bill.

Americans’ distrust of Washington is growing rapidly, and such Orwellian naming of legislation creates confusion and makes responsible governing needlessly difficult. When senators return to Washington next week, they will have an opportunity to end this long-standing unholy alliance and prove that business as usual in Washington is ending. Americans deserve to have a farm-only farm bill, and lawmakers must move other policies separately.

— Ron Johnson is a Republican senator from Wisconsin. Michael Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America.

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