Not long ago the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known to most of us as food stamps, was the political grease that encouraged urban legislators to vote for the farm bill. This summer the dynamics changed. Republicans and Democrats have been engaged in an election-year game of tug-of-war over long-term spending cuts to food assistance programs which now account for 80 percent of farm-bill or should we say food-bill expenditures. As the battle ensues, the only losers are farmers whose crops withered during the worst drought in over a half century.
This July the farm bill appeared headed for approval. Senate Ag Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking Republican Pat Roberts (Kan.) reached across the aisle to move the bill out of committee. Then, in what has been a rare event, the Senate actually held a vote and passed it. The House Ag Committee, led by Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and ranking Democrat Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), followed suit. Unfortunately, that is where things came to a grinding halt.
Even though the House Ag Committee is led by Republicans, its majority leadership hasn't endorsed its committee's work. Instead of calling for a vote, the House passed a short-term $383 million drought package which has little chance of passing in the Senate. Then all elected officials left for a five-week recess. Meanwhile, the September 30 expiration date looms on current farm bill provisions.
The reality is that the holdup isn't about the farm portion of the farm bill. Ag policy is quite similar in both versions. The debate is about food stamps with the Senate proposing $4.5 billion in cuts and the House Ag Committee at $16.5 billion. Reform-minded politicians want more trimmed from the food stamp program which has added 16.5 million recipients since 2008. As a result, one out of seven American citizens now receive some sort of food assistance in a nation that has the most abundant food supply in world history. With our ballooning national deficit, there is room for reductions in this program.
In what has been a sputtering economy, agriculture has a been a bright spot, creating jobs and generating a national trade surplus. Now Congress is threatening to do to farmers what is has been doing to other business sectors, crippling its future with inaction and political uncertainty. Contact your representative and demand that the farm bill be brought forward for a vote before the current version expires on September 30.
This Hoard's Dairyman editorial appears on page 574 of the September 10, 2012 issue.