The Corner

‘Cutting’ Food Stamps Instead of Farm Subsidies

My homepage piece today is on the blowback Democrats are getting for cutting food stamps to pay for the two new spending bills that just passed Congress. What the Democrats’ critics don’t seem to realize is that, as is so often the case in Washington, the Democrats didn’t really cut food stamps. They “cut” them: The 2009 stimulus bill expanded the food stamp programs to make benefits more generous in light of the recession, and these “emergency” expansions were to last through 2015. To fund their latest spending spree, Dems moved up the expiration date — twice — from 2015 to 2014 to fund a child-nutrition measure, then from 2014 to 2013 to fund the state-bailout bill.

What makes this all the more galling is that the offsets were originally supposed to come from real cuts to farm subsidies, not food stamps:

During committee hearings over the child-nutrition bill, Republicans suggested that Democrats look to the bloated farm bill for offsets. Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) reiterated his position that cuts be made to the direct-payments program, which is a program that sends checks to farmers based on a historical average of what they’ve produced. In other words, it makes no difference how high crop prices are — and lately they’ve been high — or whether a farmer actually grows any crops at all: He still gets a check from the government. Direct payments cost an average of $5 billion a year. Eliminating the program would have paid for all of the new spending contained in the two bills and then some.

Even farm-subsidy supporter Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) got in on the action, offering up the Conservation Stewardship Program, a program that pays farmers to idle their land. (One Senate GOP aide points out that this probably wouldn’t have saved that much money; good prices for crops mean that many farmers are dropping out of government conservation programs — which is yet another argument against direct payments.) Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.), who is running for re-election, compromised by offering cuts to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which helps big factory farms buy things like methane digesters to deal with industrial-scale manure. But in the end, election-year pressures must have gotten to Lincoln: The cuts to EQIP didn’t make it into the legislation that passed.

So why cut food stamps instead of farm subsidies? Here’s why:

Add it all up, and here’s the picture you get: Democrats are feeling pressure not to add to this year’s deficit, but they’re really hoping that these pressures will wane in future years. Therefore, they decided to use food stamps as offsets, knowing that in the future it will be (slightly) easier to restore nutritional assistance to poor people than the funding for Farmer McMillionaire’s cow-gas eliminator. And if you think that’s a lot of bovine byproduct, friend, you’re not alone.

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