Breaking: The (Possible) End of the Agri-Nutritional Complex

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The Roll Call blog has just broken news that the GOP House leadership has decided to drop food stamps from the farm bill, in an attempt to get the farm subsidies passed by the House, presumably with Republican votes alone. Nutrition is quite an “appendage” to jettison, by the way: it usually accounts for about 80 percent of all “farm bill” spending. Here’s a great infographic on food stamp usage from the Wall Street Journal online.

I think this development could be very good news: I have long called for splitting the food welfare (or “nutrition”, as it is euphemistically called) portion of the farm bill from the subsidies part. Legislators should be forced to vote on all of these programs on their individual merits, not as part of some logrolling extravaganza. The costs and benefits of programs to feed poor people deserve to be considered separately from farm subsidies, and ideally belong at the state or, even better, local community level anyway. Do we really need the federal government specifying that our kids eat greek yogurt? But I digress.

The problem is that farmers just don’t have the political or demographic clout that they used to (and in any case are starting to squabble amongst themselves) so it has long been believed that you need to load up farm subsidies with other, somewhat related programs more palatable in urban and suburban districts. That’s why energy, environmental, and food stamps are included in the “farm bill”. If you include enough goodies for diverse special interests, you’ll cobble together the votes.

That cynicism was turned on it’s head, though, when the farm bill failed last month because the Republicans thought food stamp spending was too high (even after some cuts and tightening of eligibility criteria). The Democrats, on the other hand, thought the cuts were too severe. Votes were lost on both sides of the aisle.

So, by dropping food stamps, GOP leaders think that enough Republicans will vote for this new bill to pass, even without Democrats’ support. They might be correct: clearly, powerful people in Congress think that all of these hippy issues are distracting attention from more deserving welfare programs, like farm subsidies. But I am not too sure: without sufficient Democratic votes on a subsidies-alone bill, they would need every R vote they could get, and some of the Republicans aren’t too keen on farm subsidies, either.

Another, promising development in this new farm bill is the repeal of the 1949 Agriculture Act. I said in a blog post a few weeks ago (and, indeed, on many other occasions before) that the key to reforming U.S. agricultural policy is to repeal the permanent legislative infrastructure—of which the 1949 Act is an important part—that lies behind the deplorable farm bill circus to which the American body politic is subjected every five years. By taking this law off of the books, farmers and their political supporters couldn’t threaten us with dairy cliffs and other elements of farmageddon if we don’t pass farm bills.

A huge, important caveat to all of this hopeful thinking: the GOP leadership may be splitting the bills only so they can pass them piecemeal with the hope of rejoining farm subsidies and food stamps in conference with Senate Democrats (the Senate passed their bill, logrolling intact, already), then have the conference report pass the House with Democrats’ support. Certainly Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) is by all accounts disappointed that the farm bill failed to pass and is looking for another vehicle, or several vehicles, to push this puppy through. That’s not something to get excited about: death by a thousand drips of poison is still death.

The other problem, which is theoretically fixable, is that the new GOP bill doesn’t repeal the 1938 Act, which includes several commodity titles that aren’t covered by the Agricultural Act of 1949, including price supports and marketing quotas, and the establishment of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation. So the 1938 Act has to go, too, if we are to be fully threat-free.

I am sure that others will disagree with my analysis of how the votes will break down, and my analysis of parliamentary procedure regarding conference, etc. I’m really not too interested in that, anyway. My main concern is to get American agricultural policy on the road to reform/elimination, and in my eyes these two developments could be helpful toward that end.