The Good, The Bad, And The Uncertain: Breaking Down The Farm Bill’s Future

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A compromise farm bill is finally headed to the House and Senate for a vote more than two years after members of Congress first started working on the measure. If passed and signed, which conference heads Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) each expect to happen in short order, the compromise legislation will spend roughly a trillion dollars over the next decade backstopping American agriculture and giving the most vulnerable Americans a meager allowance for food. That is a $23 billion reduction in spending compared to current law, and making sense of all the changes can be tricky.

Here is a breakdown of the good and bad parts of the farm bill compromise, and a prognosis on what happens next now that negotiators have struck a final deal.

THE GOOD: No More Direct Payments, Nobody Kicked Off Of Food Stamps. The compromise legislation ends the “direct payment” program that has been the primary way the government supported agriculture since 1996. The idea behind the program was that since farmers can be wiped out by a single bad year of weather or market prices, there ought to be a public expenditure to keep the nation’s produce growers in business and safe from such hardship. But the direct payments program sent farm owners checks no matter what happened, meaning taxpayer money went to landowners even when they had had a perfectly good year. Given the nature of modern agriculture, most farm spending goes to big companies and billionaires who don’t need the help rather than to struggling family farmers.

The compromise also does not kick anyone who currently receives food stamps off of that program. The carefully tailored deal trims the overall cost of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $8 billion over the next decade, or about 1 percent, but previous proposals from House Republicans would have booted millions of hungry people out of the system entirely. Those prior suggestions also featured dangerous and humiliating changes for how the program works, including drug tests, allowing states to raid the program to balance their budgets, and a lifetime ban for anyone convicted of a felony. Robert Greenstein of the center-left Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) praised this week’s final deal as “a relatively favorable outcome for SNAP and most of the millions of low-income Americans who rely on it” by contrast with those previous proposals.

THE BAD: Billions More For Wall Street And Agribusiness, Billions Less For Poor People To Eat. Ending direct payments is a good thing, but the bill plows those savings into an expanded crop insurance program. That means replacing one flawed program with another. Wall Street companies scrape tens of billions of dollars in almost risk-free profit out of the crop insurance subsidy system even at current spending levels. Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook blasted lawmakers for choosing “to increase unlimited subsidies to the most profitable and financially secure farm businesses at the expense of hungry children and the environment” despite “record farm income.”

The bill also retains previously proposed crop price support levels that critics consider unreasonably high. “The farm bill is chock-full of giveaways to wealthy special interests, including producers of sushi rice,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) told ThinkProgress. Those growers, for instance, will get an effective guarantee of perpetually higher profits, as subsidy payments will go out should the price of their crop fail to rise by 15 percent each year.

Meanwhile, 1.7 million Americans will have to make do with less. The SNAP reductions come from a technical change to how benefit levels are calculated — low-income people in 17 states who incur serious home heating or cooling costs will have to do more paperwork to show that they are entitled to their current benefit levels — but that still means hundreds of thousands of poor families will face a cut of about $90 per month in their already slim food aid checks.

Both Stabenow and Lucas praised the SNAP cuts on a call with reporters Tuesday. “We have said we need to make the system work better, we’re gonna tackle waste fraud and abuse, make the system accountable, and that’s what we have done,” Stabenow said. “Our fellow Americans who demonstrate they meet the asset and income requirements will get the help they need,” Lucas added. But the notion that SNAP is a fraud-riddled program in dire need of reform is baseless. It has a lower error rate than the agriculture programs to which Lucas and Stabenow are increasing funding, despite the constant barrage of disingenuous rhetoric to the contrary from conservatives.

THE FUTURE: Bill Expected To Pass, Possibly Narrowly, And Be Signed Into Law. Both Lucas and Stabenow said they expect the bill to pass and that the White House has assured them President Obama would sign it if so. But the contrasting treatment of farming companies and the country’s 50 million hungry people has some progressives in the House ready to revolt. “I can’t and won’t in good conscience vote for this bill,” McGovern said. An influential voice in the 70-plus member House Progressive Caucus, he will be urging his colleagues to vote “no,” his staff said. Hard-line conservative groups are also urging a “no” vote, albeit for very different reasons. The last time House leaders tried to get a farm bill past right and left opposition, they allowed the rightward fringe of their party to hijack the bill with poison pill amendments that ended up killing the whole package.

Still, Lucas was confident that the two wings of opposition would not be enough to derail the bill, and the support of a group like the CBPP may give critics on the left enough cover to support the bill despite the SNAP cuts and farm policy flaws.