With an artificial deadline threatening to undermine their campaign to cut food stamps, House conservatives tried on Thursday to force Senate Democrats to push the cutoff date for a farm bill compromise to the end of January.
The rationale behind the extension bill is predicated upon something agriculture policy watchers refer to as the “milk cliff.” By the letter of the law, the expiration of the current farm bill would cause all agricultural subsidy rules to revert to a 1949 law with sweeping negative consequences for consumers and farmers alike. Dairy farmers say that such a reversion would cause milk prices to double, and that the “milk cliff” demands that Congress rush to conclude a farm bill.
But Democrats say the milk cliff is a fiction. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Rep. Colin Peterson (D-MN), the Democratic leaders on farm policy, oppose the stopgap measure and have vocally resisted the idea in the press since early this week. “I am confident talking to the secretary of Agriculture just a little while ago that there will be no impacts on dairy in January,” Stabenow told The Hill on Tuesday. “We won’t be passing an extension,” she added.
Democrats also note that extending current farm policy would mean giving away a further $5 billion through the widely-disliked “direct payments” farm subsidy program that both parties want to discontinue. But reforming those programs requires passing a long-term bill that would also determine the future of food stamps eligibility rules.
With or without the extension, however, the failure to pass an actual farm bill is actually good news for food stamps recipients. Given that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would continue to operate even if the farm bill lapses temporarily, the tens of millions of hungry people who depend upon that program are likely to be better off in the near term if no deal is struck.
The current farm bill agreement contains a far less harmful cut to food stamps than those sought by Republicans, but it would still reduce food assistance to 1.7 million vulnerable people in 17 states. It hasn’t been scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) yet, but is expected to slice about $8 billion from the food stamps program over 10 years (even though the program’s costs are already projected to shrink in half over that same time frame without any changes to the law). Both House and Senate leaders say that the only thing preventing that deal from coming up for a final vote in each chamber is that CBO officials couldn’t get it scored before the December recess, which House leaders have declined to delay.
Stabenow predicted this sort of dysfunction in the farm bill process back in July after Republicans decided to split farm policy and nutrition assistance policy, dooming the longstanding legislative marriage that has sheltered both programs from major cuts. The House was poised to pass a farm bill that included about $20 billion in food stamp cuts until House leaders allowed the addition of punitive work requirements to the program. That chased Democrats away, but still wasn’t enough to get the zealous wing of the party to support the final bill, and House leaders chose at that point to split the bill rather than pass a more moderate one with Democratic support. The resulting delays compressed the time frame for a compromise between the House and Senate and led to the current eleventh-hour scrambling and confusion.