Farm-state lawmakers are pushing for final passage of a massive, five-year farm bill—member by member, vote by vote—as it heads to the House floor Wednesday.
Released Monday evening, the bill forged in a conference committee features goodies for members from all regions of the country: a boost in money for crop insurance popular in the Midwest; higher cotton and rice subsidies for Southern farmers; and much more, down to the size of cages for egg-laying hens. It’s a whopping 950 pages, nearly half the size of the Affordable Care Act.
House passage of the farm bill, which would cost almost $100 billion a year but save about $2.3 billion annually over previous bills, isn’t certain. But farm-state lawmakers have been working for more than two years to appease enough people to get it squeaked through. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., endorsed the bill Monday.
The House Agriculture Committee chairman, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who has been working on the bill since 2011, said late Monday that it was “nothing short of a miracle that we’re at this point.” Lucas has touted the bill’s elimination of the $4.5 billion-a-year farm subsidy known as “direct payments,” which are now paid to farmers whether or not they actually plant anything. The bill shifts many of those subsidies to insurance programs, meaning recipient farmers would have to first incur losses.
House leaders did also achieve some cuts to the food stamp program—a fifth of what they wanted, but double what Democrats wanted. The cuts amount to 1 percent, or $800 million a year. They’re generated by making it more difficult for states to give recipients a minimal amount of heating assistance in order to trigger higher food stamp benefits. Democrats prevented sweeping work requirements Republicans wanted, holding it to limited work-related pilot programs. But some liberal Democrats have already pledged to vote against the 1 percent cut.
Some conservatives, too, are likely to push back against the scaled-back cuts and many of the farm subsidies. “Even Dr. Frankenstein would be shocked at how Congress is stitching together a bunch of different parts to bring its monster farm bill to life,” wrote Daren Bakst of the Heritage Foundation. Bakst pointed out that President Barack Obama last year proposed agricultural cuts three times the size of the bills brought into the compromise.
Neither chamber seems to like taking money away from corporate farmers, though. 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.
The current compromise, though, does little more than authorize and describe how to measure anew the extent of the inefficiency. Party leaders in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chairman Ed Royce (R-Cali.) and ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), proposed amendments last year to enact foreign food purchases. The amendments failed, though, and committee representatives haven’t yet responded to my inquiries about their plans for supporting this farm bill compromise.
Despite opposition from some lawmakers and many industries affected by the bill, Boehner and Cantor are hoping to corral enough votes to get it passed. The reforms are meager, they admitted, but Boehner decided Monday the legislation was “worthy of the House’s support.”