Like refilling your pantry with regular trips to the grocery store, every five years Congress and the United States Department of Agriculture are tasked to “refill” funding the farm bill – the nation’s package of policies and funding that governs food production and availability.
Watching negotiations play out a couple times each decade is notable for homage to a declining art on Capitol Hill: Compromise. Whether it’s simply because everybody needs to eat or for more esoteric reasons, the farm bill eventually passes with a healthy majority vote from both parties – even in one of the most polarizing administrations in American history.
Did you know the taxpayer funding which helps tens of millions of lower-income residents buy groceries falls under the farm bill? This probably sounds more like a Health and Human Services item, but 76% of the spending in the 2018 farm bill was earmarked for nutrition assistance. This wasn’t a big departure from previous farm bills – according to the Congressional Research Service, the 2014 version allocated about 80% and in 2008, it was 67%.
“Food stamps” is the first name older generations learned for what is now SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which comprises a huge chunk of this nutrition spending. Recipients used to get paper coupons to pay for approved groceries; now they have a debit card refilled each month to spend in stores and even farmers’ and other fresh food markets. Vendors that take SNAP apply to the government for reimbursement on the credit they’ve extended to consumers.
Other parts of the bill provide direct support to agriculture through programs like crop insurance premium discounts, conservation program incentives, export promotion aid, research funding to universities and public-private efforts and some livestock aid through dairy margin protection and indemnity payments for disaster-type losses (a recent example is reimbursement for some of the 50 million poultry culled in the wake of the 2015 avian influenza outbreak).
The farm bill package is written and debated first in the House, then the Senate – and then in conference committee – before going to the president, roughly every 4-6 years. Technically the farm bill is supposed to be revisited every five years, but there have been some notable delays … such as when the 2012 bill passed in 2014.
Ideally a new bill will pass in the year it is intended and before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year and expiration of the old bill. If this doesn’t happen, Congress can:
· Vote to authorize extension of the last bill’s programs at those funding levels for a short time and give itself a chance to finish hammering out the pending bill;
· Elect to pick and choose certain programs to extend and not others;
· Do nothing at all – which wouldn’t last long, because left and right interest groups will strongly lobby senators and Congresspeople to do something so there isn’t a gap in funding all these programs.
MARRIAGE OF PRACTICALITY
When the farm bill comes up for renewal, as it has for 2023, there are people who propose uncoupling the farm support from nutrition assistance and turning it into two pieces of legislation. The argument rests largely on SNAP, and is surprisingly the same logic from proponents on the right and left: That tying the fate of one to the other may endanger passage of a new bill for either, and prevents significant reform of either.
But many mainstream agricultural interest groups and organizations – as well as non-farm advocates for social programs – oppose decoupling. While there is some griping and grumbling among more conservative farmers about the level of taxpayer funding that goes to public aid, these are people whose passion is to produce food. They take pride in the concept of feeding the world; a basic imperative to quell hunger, both in selling their product and donating some of it to food banks and pantries, is part of who farmers are.
And then there’s old-fashioned political horse-trading. Farm-state Congresspeople know they represent the minority of U.S. voters in numbers. SNAP recipients and other supporters of nutrition assistance are not limited by any means to urban and suburban areas – there are plenty of poor people in flyover country, after all – but there is usually more stated support for these programs in the nation’s House districts packed with larger cities.
Because of how House districts are allocated across the country and the fact SNAP recipients live everywhere, there’s an interesting balance between largely rural red states represented in the House and more densely-populated blue states. This means critics of SNAP and related spending are more or less countered by critics of farm subsidy programs like crop insurance premium credits.
So far, both nutrition assistance and farm program supporters have shaken hands to get both kinds of projects funded, even if they appear to have the same public squabbles about it every time a new farm bill is in the spotlight. How this will play out over negotiations in the next 19 months (or more!) is the fascination of political theatre.