Bitter Harvest: Farm Bill Dies on the House Floor

Author: Kate Fitzgerald

The Senate again passed a Farm Bill with a strong bipartisan majority on June 10, but any momentum that caused was lost in the last hours of debate in the House of Representatives, and that chamber voted down its bill just 9 days later. Once again Congress approaches July 4 with no clear path forward to direct food and farm policy for the next five years.

The Senate bill is much like the bill it passed in 2012 and includes some excellent provisions supporting the development of local and regional food systems and improving nutrition benefits, including $100 million over the next five years to support incentives for SNAP families to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

On production and conservation issues, the Senate bill includes two key reforms; one requires that producers use good conservation practices in order to participate in the government-supported crop insurance program, another places an income cap on farm program payments to prevent them from going to high-earning farms. The Senate bill saves an estimated $23 billion over the next 10 years and its most contentious provision is one that is expected to reduce spending on the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) by $4 billion in that time period.

The bill voted out of the House Agriculture Committee had bipartisan support, but after amendments were added during floor debate, the final bill would have cut SNAP by more than $20.5 billion over 10 years and had lost almost all its Democratic support. Many of the Republicans who voted for the anti-SNAP provisions voted against the final bill, essentially changing the bill in ways they knew would weaken its chances of passage and then voting against it to ensure it failed.

So we are back where we were last year: the current law expires on September 30 and there is no clear legislative path forward. There are several alternatives. The House could try to pass their bill again, it could try to pass the Senate’s bill, there could be a conference committee between the chambers to try to hammer out a compromise, or both houses could pass another extension of the 2008 Farm Bill.

So what’s up?  Is the farm bill simply another victim of dysfunction in the House of Representatives or are there more fundamental challenges facing the legislation?  This is the first time in its 80-year history that the House has voted down a Farm Bill. These are usually bipartisan packages that succeed by crafting a careful balance that meets the needs of rural and urban America.  This balance has often been characterized as a “deal” between conservative rural members and liberal urban members that has created a system of unfair farm subsidies and expensive (but inadequate) nutrition assistance to low-income families, most of whom live in cities.

The problem is that this oversimplification has created opposition to the Farm Bill from both the Left and the Right. And lost in the middle is a serious discussion about all the things in the Farm Bill in addition to direct subsidy payments to farmers and SNAP benefits for the poor.

The Farm Bill’s roots are in the crisis years of the Depression and it was conceived as a way government could provide a framework that would ensure a degree of price stability to farmers to protect the economies of rural communities, ensure the preservation of the natural resources necessary to provide an adequate food supply to the nation, and offer a nutritious food safety net to low-income families in crisis. It recognized the fundamental connections between rural and urban America and the crucial role food production plays in a nation’s economy and security.

Eighty years later, very few people understand the complexity of the many programs in the Farm Bill that, as a whole, attempt to maintain the careful balance the legislation seeks to preserve. Oversimplification of the bill regularly turns into misinformation. Recent elections have eroded the core of moderate members of both parties who understand farm, food and conservation policy and care about doing the hard work to make it better.

While more Americans are thinking about their food, this new and exciting movement does not yet have the political heft to move many votes. And in the meantime, House deadlock could destine us to another Farm Bill extension: another year of lost opportunities for programs that would build a better food system, of uncertainty for family farmers, and of programs that consensus indicates should  be ended.

The Senate has passed a reform-minded farm bill for the last two years. Advocates for fair food systems could make their voices heard and let their members of the House of Representatives know that another year of the status quo is not good enough. American farmers and consumers need a new Farm Bill this year.