Congress has given its final approval to a sweeping five-year farm bill that makes minor food stamp adjustments and continues to provide subsidies for farmers. Ending years of political battles, today’s 68-32 Senate vote sends the legislation to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it.
The almost $100 billion-a-year compromise bill has been in the works since 2011. The House passed it last week. About 80 percent of the bill's spending comes from the food stamp program, which supplements meal costs for 1 in 7 Americans.
The final savings in the food stamp program, $800 million out of $80 billion, comes from cracking down on a loophole that allowed states to give minimal heating assistance to people in order to automatically qualify them for food stamps. Some Democrats still objected to the cuts, even though they are much lower than what the House had sought. The bill the Senate passed this summer had a $400 million annual cut to food stamps. Some Republicans took to the Senate floor Monday to say the bill didn’t do enough to trim spending.
“This farm bill is a monument to every dysfunction Washington indulges to bend our politics and twist our economy to benefit itself at the expense of the American people,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told Congress Tuesday.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also took his colleagues to task.
“It's mind-boggling, the sum of money that's spent on farm subsidies, duplicative nutrition and development assistance programs, and special interest pet projects,” he said. “How are we supposed to restore the confidence of the American people with this monstrosity?”
The bill will save around $1.65 billion annually overall. But critics said that under new insurance-style farm subsidy programs, those savings could disappear if the weather or the market doesn’t cooperate. And according to the Heritage Foundation, the $1.65 billion in savings is less than what the American people would have saved under any of the farm bills proposed last summer.
One important change would prohibit the government from using food stamp program money to recruit or “persuade an individual” to apply. The bill also bans “entities receiving benefits” from using their own money to hire people to recruit beneficiaries through quotas and other numbers-based incentives. It’s not clear whether that prohibition applies to state governments, which could still fund their own persuasion programs. And simple accounting maneuvers might keep widespread persuasion tactics legal.
Recruiting people for food stamp benefits has become widespread as states crave the economic boost “free" spending money gives the poor. Food stamps have become a weapon against income inequality, and an effort to relieve financial stress, rather than hunger. The program’s supporters don’t see that as a problem.
“If people are eligible, they ought to be enrolled in it, so that’s a good thing,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a food stamp champion who decried the cuts in the bill.