Making Sense of the Farm Bill

By Lindsey Webb

If you’ve been following farm policy in the last year and a few months, you know that this has been a trying time for the U.S. Farm Bill. Until recently, this far-reaching bill enjoyed pleasantly little political opposition since the 1960s, when the first version in its current form became law. If you haven’t been following closely, the process has likely seemed confusing, repetitive, and sometimes just downright difficult to understand. Let’s try to straighten some of this out!

The Farm Bill is a critical piece of legislation that funds many agriculture- and food-related programs in the United States. These include commodity subsidies, crop insurance, agricultural research, and grants to specialty crop producers to improve efficiency and market their products.  However, the majority of the funding in the bill, currently along the lines of 75-80%, goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

Coupling nutrition assistance with farm programs has historically meant that urban lawmakers, whose priority in the bill is nutrition assistance, have an incentive to support farm programs. In the same way, a cohesive bill provides incentive to rural lawmakers, who prioritize farm programs, to support nutrition assistance.

Farm Bills have historically been passed every five or six years. For a Farm Bill to become law, the Senate and the House must each pass their own version, at which point a conference committee of a group of Senators and Representatives reconciles the differences between the bills. Once the committee produces a final version, the bill goes to the President’s desk. If the President signs it, it becomes law.

Last year, the Farm Bill was due to be renewed. The Senate passed a version, but the House, amid strong disagreements about cuts to SNAP, could not pass a version itself. Near the end of 2012, the Agriculture Committees of both houses agreed to extend the 2008 Farm Bill for one year. This extension expired on September 30, 2013, leaving the future of some programs uncertain.

That brings us to 2013. The Senate passed a version of the Farm Bill this past June with bipartisan support. Their bill will cost $955 billion over the next ten years, but includes significant decreases in spending from current levels, including a $4.1 billion reduction in SNAP funding over ten years and a $3.5 billion decrease in funding for conservation programs. Importantly, the Senate version eliminates direct payments, a type of subsidy in which payments to farmers are made whether crop prices are low or high. In other words, whether farmers need the support or not.

The House bill has had a rockier path. A version of the bill was put forth by the House Agriculture Committee that included some of the same provisions on the farm side as the Senate version. However, it eliminated numerous programs and proposed much bigger cuts to SNAP: a $20.5 billion reduction over ten years.  The bill failed in June with bipartisan opposition, with many Democrats saying the bill cut too much from SNAP, and some Republicans saying it didn’t cut enough.

Nutrition assistance has become an increasingly divisive issue over the past few years due to budget constraints and the changing makeup of the House of Representatives. The yearly budget for SNAP is around $80 billion, and the program has an enrollment of about 47 million people.

In an unprecedented move, the House Agriculture Committee, amid pressure by a bloc of conservative Representatives who wanted to split the provisions in the bill, proposed a Farm Bill with no nutrition title at all. It included only agriculture-related programs. It passed in July with not one Democrat voting yes.

According to Professor Tim Griffin, Program Director for the Agriculture, Food, & and Environment Program at Friedman, splitting the bill “has been floated as an idea over the last couple of Farm Bill cycles.” He believes that such a split bill is unlikely to pass in the Senate and would not be signed by the current president. Were a split bill to pass in the future and become the norm, he says, “the political compromise that has characterized the Farm Bill since the 1960s would disappear…very, very quickly.”

After weeks of speculation among journalists and politicians alike, a nutrition-only bill was passed by the House in mid-September. Again, this was with no Democratic support. This bill doubled the cuts proposed in the full version of the bill that was voted down in June, increasing the hit to SNAP to $40 billion over ten years. Cuts of this size would have a massive impact on low-income populations in the U.S.

The House voted at the end of September to join their bills so that conference committee work could begin. This past week, the conference committee met for the first time to begin reconciling the Senate and House bills. The 40-member committee includes representatives from the Senate and House Agriculture Committees and lawmakers with vested interests in SNAP or farm programs. During their meeting on October 30, the members each spoke briefly about their priorities, and some congratulated each other for even getting to the negotiating table in the first place.

I asked Professor Parke Wilde what predictions can be made as far as a compromise. “I have truly no idea what will happen next,” he said. He added that the possibilities do include no compromise, given current political dynamics. Or, more optimistically, “maybe the experience of the shutdown will make our legislators more aware of the potential value of reaching a compromise.”

Stay tuned.


Lindsey Webb is a second-year FPAN student with a newfound fascination with agriculture policy in the United States. She enjoys running, dance music, and New England fall, preferably in combination.

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