The uneasy marriage of farm bill and food stamps

Feb 7, 2014

Both farmers and food stamps advocates sighed in relief Friday when President Obama signed the  long-overdue Agriculture Act of 2014 – the $956-billion farm bill – into law on Friday during a visit to Michigan State University.  The farm bill process was fraught with ups and downs and the loose coalition tying nutrition and farm programs seemed barely able to survive.

Though it’s often called the “farm bill,” it funds both farm subsidies and food stamps. In years past, linking the two in one bill meant most legislators had a vested interest in getting it done. But with Congress sharply divided on funding for food stamps – called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the farm bill looked hopeless at times.

A marriage of convenience

The previous farm bill expired in the fall of 2012. It took years of negotiation, and numerous failed bills, before Congress could agree on a compromise acceptable to the Republican majority in the U.S. House, the Democratic majority in the Senate and the Democratic president.

“This difficult process we went through over the last couple of years helped illuminate a lot of the fault lines and the places of tension between those different components of the political spectrum,” said Neil Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University in Des Moines.

Since the earliest farm supports in the 1930s, the link between those who grow food and those who need it has been part of federal agriculture policy. It became more urgent in the 1960s and 1970s as a way to keep urban lawmakers—eager to alleviate hunger in their districts—on board with farm subsidies.

“It’s been an alliance, in part, of convenience,” Hamilton said.

But the 2014 farm bill nearly ended the union.

A short divorce

The drafting of the 2014 farm bill pitted opposite sides against one another in direct competition: On the left, liberal nutrition advocates; on the right, fiscal conservatives looking to cut spending on food assistance and other programs.

Dan Looker, business editor of the magazine Successful Farming, says the farm bill’s tortured process was a reflection of an increasingly polarized Congress. In particular, it shows the rise in power of Tea Party conservatives—the minority of House Republicans who played a big part in stalling progress on the farm bill. They wanted to cut the SNAP program so much, they even succeeded in breaking farm policy apart from nutrition at one point last summer. The break, however, was short-lived.

Even politicians from farm country weren’t as focused on passing the farm bill as one might expect.

“In the final vote on the farm bill in the House I understand there wasn’t a single vote from Kansas for the bill,” Looker said. “And that’s very, very unusual.”

Farm bill politics reached a crisis point in June when the House voted down farm bill legislation. But legislators re-grouped. Eventually, both the House and Senate passed separate versions of farm bills—though what the House put forward was actually two bills, one for nutrition assistance and one for farm programs. A conference committee negotiated for several months before offering the compromise bill that was ultimately passed in both chambers and brought to President Obama’s desk.

Coalition remains intact

Though tested by years of acrimonious farm bill negotiations, the nutrition-farm coalition lives on. In fact, Hamilton suggests that an even tighter bond may have made the legislative process easier.

“I would hope that one of the lessons and things that may happen is that the agricultural sector – commodity organizations and others – might more fully embrace the value of nutrition programs,” Hamilton said.

Because a few facts remain: farmers grow food, among other things, and hungry people need food. Helen Jensen, an economist at Iowa State University, says the farm bill aims to help both groups.

“Food is certainly tied very closely to agriculture,” Jensen said. Historically, she continued, the question has been, “How do we use the agricultural product to support both people who were very hungry and also to support farmers?”

Although the pairing of farm and food policies got stretched and challenged this go-round, Jensen thinks it’s here to stay. And Dan Looker agrees, pointing out that this time, the agriculture sector was coming off strong years and the overall economy was emerging from recession. If those roles are reversed next time, things could look quite different.

“It’s very possible that five years from now food stamps won’t be a huge issue and farmers may need support from the farm bill more than they do today,” Looker said.

For richer or poorer, it looks like the sides can celebrate another anniversary before getting busy figuring out exactly how the new law will impact their operations.