Three Intended Consequences of the House’s Un-Making of a 2013 Farm Bill

Click here for prior post, “Any Ole Farm Bill Just Won’t Do

The 2008 farm bill due to expire this September 30th is an historical distillation of our democratic process. Over the past sixty years, each successive farm bill has involved the USAmerican public, farmers, advocates and industry leaders as well as the Congress and President in assessing how economic, environmental and political conditions should shape federal food and agriculture policy.  After failing last month to approve a five-year $939 billion reauthorization of both agricultural and nutrition programs, the House decided to shave off the nutrition title and approve only agricultural programs through fiscal year 2018. (1)

Today in mid-July 2013, activists, pundits and legislators across the country are attempting to anticipate what some are calling the many, possible “unintended consequences” of the House’s split version of the 2013 farm bill.(2) Opposite this hard work of enumerating the long list of outcomes and effects on untold numbers of people, it seems easy enough to identify three, highly-intended, strategic aims that could signal deep, long-term and permanent consequences for the Farm Bill process itself. These aims, I argue, further amplify the message of the growing alliance among small agriculture, conservation and anti-hunger groups: “We want a full, fair farm bill this summer!”

1. The So-Called Split – No Nutrition Title = No Farm Bill

Last week, the House passed legislation to split the farm bill without a single Democratic vote and with twelve Republicans in opposition. Word is that next week the House will try to pass a separate nutrition bill that will include even deeper cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Passage of this legislation is necessary for a final farm bill to be negotiated by conference and put on the floor for a final vote in the House and Senate.

While just today, the house sent the agriculture portion of the bill ( H.R. 2642) to the Senate, the splitting of the farm bill is a very particular strategy. As Sen. Jerry Moran (R., Kans.) explained, “at some point in time it’s going to have to be rejoined because the Democrat controlled Senate will not pass a farm bill in the absence of nutrition and food stamp programs.”(3) Furthermore, it is generally accepted that if SNAP is not included in the final bill, “it will be vetoed by the president.”(4)

Ultimate outcomes for the bill include either a conference committee between the Senate and House to negotiate a compromise or possibly another one-year extension like Congress had to do last year. For those counting on the Senate to temper the House’s self-proclaimed austerity, the historical record may foretell SNAP’s fate. While the Senate farm bill includes some $4 billion in cuts to food stamps, lawmakers in the House have previously passed a nonbinding budget resolution calling for $135 billion in cuts. As Eric Wasson pointed out, “Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) had been prepared to accept $8 billion in cuts in the context of the failed supercommittee deficit effort of 2011.”(5) Prodding members of House to move quickly, she said, “I’m not going to support an extension that leaves out big, important pieces of farm policy and keeps subsidies that we all agree should be eliminated.” (6)

Thus the temporary removal of SNAP from the Farm Bill is merely a way of pressuring Democrats in both House and Senate to accept deeper cuts to food assistance in exchange for Republican votes on a 2013 reauthorization of the farm bill.

2.   No Permanent Law = “NO FARM BILL EVER”

The rationale for passing a new farm bill roughly every five years for more than the last half-century has been an understanding that federal farm policy must keep pace with the country’s changing needs and conditions. The most far-reaching aim of the House’s 2013 bill, then, is the removal of ‘permanent law’—i.e., the law that requires farm policy to revert back to the original language of 1938 and 1949 in the absence of a new farm bill. By removing this requirement congress won’t have to pass a new farm bill. Not now. Not ever.

As Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack stated on the Agritalk program:

The notion that you would make the 2013 effort permanent and that you would eliminate permanent law I think also raises some serious questions about whether or not we’ll ever have a comprehensive food, farm and jobs bill in the future.(3)

As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition pointed out, “from the standpoint of commodity subsidies, a new farm bill in the future would never be needed, as the commodity subsidies enacted by law in 2013 would become permanent, with no sunset date. Crop and revenue insurance subsidies, moreover, already are permanent under existing statute.”

On one hand, “all commodity subsidies would be permanent and would never need to be reauthorized or modified.” On the other hand, conservation, rural development, renewable energy, research and extension, etc. “would require periodic renewal, and could quite possibly be left in the lurch in the absence of a pressing need to renew production subsidies.”

In short, splitting the farm bill last month was and continues to be about securing permanent cuts to SNAP. Removing permanent law is about destroying the Farm Bill Reauthorization Process, as we know it. But above all, unmaking the farm bill process is about protecting the funding streams (e.g. commodity subsidies, direct payments and crop insurance) that benefit industrial farming operations (and the corporations that own and serve them) and doing away with the smaller programs that reflect the wisdom of our forbears in linking food security and food assistance to policies supporting small, family farmers, workers, and the environment. Ms. Stabenow’s warning to House members yesterday was instructive. Should they arrive in conference seeking “a simple extension of the 2008 farm commodity subsidies,” they would surely be disappointed, because this approach neither “touches on all aspects of the farm bill” nor “reduces the deficit”! Again NSAC elaborated that “many of the same conservative right wing think tanks and action groups who were beating the drum for weeks in support of splitting the nutrition title off from the farm-portions of the farm bill suddenly did an about-face and opposed the measure passed today once they realized that there would be no subsidy reform amendments allowed and that, adding insult to injury, subsidies would be put on autopilot.” Ironic indeed. (7)

(Want More Farm Bill Opinions? See Note 8.)

3. The Non-Farm Bill = No Link Between Food & Agriculture in 2018.

Since 1939, generations of Americans have invested in creating the provisions of the Nutrition Title of the Farm Bill, and the integrated policies related to the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act (GIPSA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Commerce Clause. I mention these specifically, because recent congressional actions seek to un-make the fundamental relations among these agencies and policies. For those who support protections for consumers as well as equity, justice, opportunity, and access across all titles of the Farm Bill, the death of the reauthorization process portends a great disaster.

Without farms, farmworkers, soil and water, there can be no food. Without food security there can be no peace. And without food assistance to the needy, there can be no grace. Less prosaically, without a comprehensive farm bill, specialty crops, organics, rural development, conservation, research and another handful of relatively inexpensive safety-net programs for small, beginning, disadvantaged, and veteran producers will be gone by 2018.  

Toward a Healthier, Sustainable, Equitable Food & Farming Future

One clear way forward is to rebuff these attempts to split the wise and wholesome alliances among the everyday people who constitute the real food and agriculture constituencies. We still have time to join together and ensure that the farm bill continues to strengthen links between farmers and eaters, between sustainable farming and food security interests, and among rural and urban communities. A broad range of groups across the country are collaborating in what is affectionately named “the GOAT process” with the purpose of strengthening the capacity of grassroots communities to ensure that national food and farm policy reflects shared principles of equity, justice and access across all titles of the farm bill.

Yesterday, members of the GOAT Process issued a statement containing this outline of what a full, fair farm bill must include:

▪   All nutrition programs, rejecting all cuts or changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that would increase hunger or reduce access to nutrition education for any of the 47 million Americans who currently rely on the program to meet basic food needs;

▪   Full funding for farm conservation programs, enhanced and streamlined to better meet the pressing and accelerating natural resource and environmental issues of our day;

▪   The cost-saving crop insurance and commodity subsidy reforms included in one or both congressional bills including payment limit reform, national sodsaver, and conservation compliance;

▪   Robust provisions and funding to increase economic opportunity for the nation’s diverse family farmers and ranchers, farm and food workers, rural and urban communities, and Indian Tribes.

▪   Provisions to ensure that a comprehensive farm bill with all titles will be updated on a regular five-year basis as conditions in the food and farm system change.

Organizations can sign on to this statement here.

Notes and References:

1.  The Senate passed its version of the comprehensive legislation a month ago including $4 billion in reductions to SNAP; House Republicans have proposed $20.5 billion in cuts during committee mark-ups.

2.  The full quote in Farm Policy was, “‘It may have a lot of unintended consequences,’ said by Kam Quarles, director of legislative affairs at McDermott Will & Emery who deals with agriculture policy.” See “US House Farm Bill Cracks Down on Food Stamps,” by Financial Times writer Stephanie Kirchgaessnerhttp://www.ft.com/cms/s/dec8646c-ea63-11e2-b2f4-00144feabdc0,Authorised=false.html?_i_location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ft.com%2Fcms%2Fs%2F0%2Fdec8646c-ea63-11e2-b2f4-00144feabdc0.html&_i_referer=#axzz2ZENRXIED

3. Heard on Friday’s AgriTalk radio program with Mike Adams by Keith Good of Farm Policy.org and reported in the “Farm Bill; and the Ag Economy – Monday,” Newsletter, July 15, 2013.

4. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) was quoted in the Times Herald-Record saying as much, and member of Rural Coalition, attendees at Senator Stabenow’s press conference yesterday, report that the Senator confirmed that the Senate will not move forward without a Nutrition Title and the President will not sign a Farm bill into law unless there is a Nutrition Title.

5. See Eric Wassen’s entry “GOP farm bill victory could prove fruitless” in On the Money, the Hill’s Finance and Economy Blog: http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/agriculture/310791-gop-farm-bill-victory-could-prove-fruitless

6. See “Parties fight for leverage on farm bill,” by Erik Wasson – 07/15/13 http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/agriculture/311069-stabenow-blasts-gop-for-blocking-farm-bill-conference

7. See NSAC for the blog and a wealth of other resources: http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/house-passes-partial-farm-bill/

8.   Keith Good at FarmPolicy.org shared these recents on the farm bill in his 7/15/13 e-newsletter: On Saturday the editorial boards at The New York Times (“Missing: The Food Stamp Program”), The Washington Post  (“The House’s farm bill is a perfect disgrace”), The Wall Street Journal (“A Healthy Farm Rebellion”), and The Des Moines Register (“Rather than reduce food aid, [Rep. Steve King] should focus on fraud”) all remarked on Farm Bill issues. Andrea Drusch reported yesterday at Politico that, “CBS ‘Face the Nation’ host Bob Schieffer on Sunday took a swipe at the farm bill passed by the House earlier this month for giving money to large corporations while failing to include nutrition assistance.”

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