Congress Tees Up an $867 Billion Farm Bill

May 7, 2018

If you thought that the congressional spending orgy would slow down after the bloated omnibus bill passed in March, you were wrong. Republicans are preparing to bring to the House floor a farm bill that will cost taxpayers at least $867 billion over 10 years.

While this is a “farm bill,” one-quarter of the spending will be for farm subsidies and three-quarters for food stamps. The latter is officially called “nutrition” spending. But since almost one-quarter of food stamp spending is for junk food, that label is as absurd as calling Social Security’s Ponzi-style accounting a “trust fund.”

The essence of the farm bill is a giant log roll. Much of the spending likely does not have majority support in Congress or among the public, so politicians mash together hand-outs to different groups in a broad farm-food omnibus. As the number of farmers has fallen over the decades, politicians have had to buy off an increasing number of special interest groups to pass the “farm bill.” The Congressional Research Service recently discussed how the farm bill logroll developed:

The economic depression and dust bowl in the 1930s prompted the first “farm bill” in 1933, with subsidies and production controls to raise farm incomes and encourage conservation. … The 1973 farm bill was the first “omnibus” farm bill; it included not only farm supports but also food stamp reauthorization to provide nutrition assistance for needy individuals. Subsequent farm bills expanded in scope, adding titles for formerly stand-alone laws such as trade, credit, and crop insurance. New conservation laws were added in the 1985 farm bill, organic agriculture in the 1990 farm bill, research programs in the 1996 farm bill, bioenergy in the 2002 farm bill, and horticulture and local food systems in the 2008 farm bill.

We’re subsidizing horticulture now? What’s next—subsidies for grocery stores, restaurants, flower shops, and landscape architecture?

Even with the wide-ranging logroll in the current House bill, supporters may have difficulty getting enough votes. Many Democrats are objecting to changes in food stamps, which would cut a net $583 million over 10 years in spending from a 10-year food stamp baseline of $664 billion. (That’s one-tenth of 1 percent). Some Republicans are objecting to the high spending on both farm and food subsidies. We will see what happens in coming weeks. 

Join us Friday at noon on Capitol Hill for a briefing on the farm bill featuring myself, Daren Bakst of the Heritage Foundation, and Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group.

CBO’s cost estimate of the farm bill is here.

Logrolling is explained here.

An overview of farm subsidies is here.

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