In its first post-shutdown test, Congress must rehash this summer’s farm bill fiasco. After threatening financial disaster for their principles, both parties now face inconsistencies on food stamps and fiscal responsibility.
The renewed battle began Wednesday in a conference committee held to discuss corporate agricultural subsidies and food stamps. About $80 billion of the $100 billion farm bill goes to food stamps, a program providing benefits to 47 million Americans. The bill pits urban lawmakers against rural farm states, a once traditional compromise that’s killed the bill for the last two years. The House struggled even to pass a bill to the conference committee, where congressional leaders must now try to forge a compromise between spending cuts and meeting genuine need.
Both parties face tough decisions. The Senate bill achieved a $4 billion cut to food stamps over 10 years by closing a loophole that allowed states to automatically register families by giving them minimal assistance from other programs. The House wants to cut $4 billion per yearby more broadly ending automatic signups, reinstating work requirements for able-bodied adults, and more.
But during this summer’s farm bill fight, lawmakers overlooked the impending end of Recovery Act boosts, temporary benefit increases that expired Nov. 1. For families of three or four, the automatic cuts amount to about $1 per day. For the poorest families with special circumstances—those without other assistance or with chronic health concerns—the cuts are costing meals.
This summer, though, Democrats fought public relations wars over active cuts. They decried reinstating work requirements for able-bodied, single adults, citing high unemployment rates. That stance ignored allowances for unpaid community service to meet work requirements, a fact the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service confirmed to me.
So, while Democrats made their case off phantom attacks on the vulnerable, their base—perhaps legitimately—is now calling them out on Friday’s cuts. Greg Kaufmann, poverty writer for The Nation, implied Democrats aren’t serious enough about government poverty programs.
Republicans, on the other hand, face their own inconsistency with their call for fiscal responsibility. Both chambers voted this summer to maintain or createsubsidies for corporate farmers, including international marketing. President Barack Obama’s proposed budget cuts $38 billion in such subsidies—three times more than either the House or Senate proposals.
“At least when it comes to agriculture spending, President Obama is far more fiscally responsible than Congress,” said Daren Bakst of the Heritage Foundation. “That should embarrass anyone who claims to be a fiscal conservative.”
One of the president’s most important cuts came through international food aid reform. The United States currently buys surplus food from corporate farms and ships it slowly and expensively overseas. The practice can steal business from countries’ local farmers. By buying in the targeted country, America could save hundreds of millions while doing more good.
Neither chamber seems to like taking money away from corporate farmers, though. Reps. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Elliot Engel, D-N.Y., are fighting to include an international food aid amendment in the reconciliation bill. The House voted it down this summer.
The American public won’t know for a while what the reconciled bill will look like. Congress may fail to pass what does come out of the conference committee, meaning many agricultural supports will slowly phase out beginning next month. Food stamp funding is not tied to the farm bill and wouldn’t be affected, at least not until next summer.