Congress’ farm bill has traditionally been one of the easier pieces of legislation to pass. Democrats tend to like the provisions that help feed low-income Americans; Republicans tend to like the elements that extend subsidies to agribusinesses; and the result is a package that sails through the House and Senate without much fuss.
But as congressional Republicans moved further to the right, the farm bill stopped being easy. In this Congress, for example, House GOP lawmakers voted to slash public investment in food aid to the poor, cutting $39 billion over the next decade, resulting in lost benefits for about 3.8 million people.
The cuts were so severe that the entire legislation stalled – there was simply no way a Democratic Senate would accept it. This led to months of negotiations on a compromise, which was finally reached last night.
House and Senate negotiators on Monday agreed on a new five-year farm bill that will eliminate or consolidate dozens of agriculture subsidy programs, expand government-subsidized crop insurance and cut about $8 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade.
The bipartisan agreement, two years after lawmakers began work on the nearly $1 trillion bill, is a major step forward in reauthorizing hundreds of farm and nutrition programs that must be renewed every five years. And, at least for now, it brings an end to the partisan fighting that stalled two previous attempts to pass the legislation. The bill would reduce spending by about $23 billion over the next 10 years.
The two main questions at this point are what ended up in the compromise and whether the bill can actually pass.
On the former, the new agreement, reached in a conference committee, is vastly improved from its House iteration. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Robert Greenstein took a closer look at the cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
To be sure, the conference agreement does include $8.6 billion in SNAP cuts over the next decade. Yet it stands in sharp contrast to the nearly $40 billion in SNAP cuts in the House-passed bill of September, which contained an array of draconian provisions and would have thrown 3.8 million people off SNAP in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The conference agreement includes none of the draconian House provisions – and it removes virtually no low-income households from SNAP.
The SNAP cut that remains is a provision to tighten an element of the SNAP benefit calculation that some states have converted into what most people would view as a loophole. Specifically, some states are stretching the benefit formula in a way that enables them not only to simplify paperwork for many SNAP households, but also to boost SNAP benefits for some SNAP households by assuming those households pay several hundred dollars a month in utility costs that they do not actually incur. Congress did not intend for states to stretch the benefit rules this way, and longstanding SNAP supporters like myself find it difficult to defend. Moreover, a future Administration could close off this use of the rules administratively, without any congressional action.
Two-thirds of states do not use the current rules this way, and no SNAP beneficiaries in these states are expected to lose any benefits under this provision. Across the other one-third of states, CBO estimates that 88 to 89 percent of beneficiaries would remain untouched, while 11 to 12 percent would remain eligible for SNAP but face a benefit reduction because their state has used this practice to boost their benefits above what they would otherwise be.
It’s hardly a progressive breakthrough, but the compromise largely mitigates the most offensive provisions of the House GOP bill.
But how big a problem will that be in the lower chamber? The farm bill is expected to be voted on in the House as early as tomorrow, and though it’s generally expected to pass, there’s some question as to how many Republicans will balk because the bill doesn’t do enough to cut off low-income Americans from food assistance.
The Senate, meanwhile, has not yet scheduled a vote. Note that because the agreement is the result of a conference committee negotiation, neither chamber can amend the bill as it currently exists.