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After Farm Bill flop, Congress follows up with a split-bill fiasco

Late last week, the House of Representatives took up the Farm Bill again, after having failed to pass a bill last month.  This time, House leaders decided to take an unusual path and split the bill up, passing only the section on farm subsidies and related programs.  The part left out covered the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – formerly known as the Food Stamps program – which had accounted for the largest part of the Farm Bill.

Rep. Collin Peterson, photo courtesy of MN Public Radio.

“I believe the strategy of splitting the farm bill is a mistake that jeopardizes the chances of it ever becoming law. And repealing permanent law all but ensures that we will never write a farm bill again.”

-Rep. Collin Peterson, ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture

The final vote was a narrow 216-208, with no Democrats voting in favor and 12 Republicans also dissenting.  The bill that was passed contained all the titles – or sections – that the original bill had, except for the nutrition title.

Wait – Food Stamps in the Farm Bill?

Yep – historically, the SNAP program – which is administered by the USDA – is a part of the Farm Bill, along with subsidies, crop insurance, education and all the programs benefiting beginning farmers.  This coupling makes perfect sense – not only is the bill addressing the nation’s entire food system (for both producers and consumers), but it draws support from both rural and urban communities.  That interconnectedness is what assured us that the bill would be pushed forward every time it came up in Congress.  With SNAP removed from the House’s draft, there are a lot of questions rising up about whether this bill will make it all through way through the process, and also what will happen to the SNAP program.

What Else Changed?

Another major change that was slipped into the bill was a change to “permanent law” for commodity price supports.  Historically, Farm Bills have a five-year life cycle, and new bills are created every four to six years.  While there’s often difficulty in gathering enough support to pass a bill, Congress has always (eventually!) been able to do it.  This is in part because of the way the commodity section was created.  Each bill sets certain price levels for commodity supports; however, if the bill expires, then those support levels would automatically revert to the levels set in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  

Seems like an awfully antiquated system, right? Well, the reason it has stuck around is because it forces Congress to act.  As we have all seen, getting enough members of Congress to agree to anything is nearly impossible.  The threat of reverting back to the completely out-dated support levels of sixty years ago forces Congress to compromise every five years to pass a new Farm Bill.  If that consequence is erased, it’s hard to know what will happen the next time the bill expires.

However, erasing it is exactly what they did!  The new commodity support levels are “permanent” in the bill that came out of the House, meaning that at the bill’s expiration (or the expiration of any future Farm Bill), prices would revert to current (2013) levels.  And while commodities may be put on autopilot, the rest of the Farm Bill isn’t.  That means that the part of the bill that drives compromise will be unnecessary, leaving Congress to squabble and drag its feet on everything else in the future.  So antiquated, yes, but also definitely still needed.

So What’s Next?

Well, that’s the big question.  There are only a handful more in-session weeks before the September 30th expiration of the bill.  The latest bill out of the House is a far cry different than what came out of the Senate last month, meaning there’s still a long way to go before the legislative branch as a whole produces something.  We will keep you informed as things progress, so stay tuned here!
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