Bob Kraft: Farm bill proves to be a difficult compromise
Wednesday, February 05, 2014 3:47 PM
CARMEL – On Friday this week, President Obama will travel to the campus of Michigan State University to sign a bill titled the Agricultural Act of 2014 but almost universally known as the 2014 Farm Bill.
Both of these titles are misleading because they imply the bill deals primarily, if not exclusively, with farming or agriculture. While it’s true that the bill is the single most important piece of federal legislation addressing agriculture, it is significantly more than that. The final bill took over two years of congressional negotiations and left both liberals and conservatives frustrated that the eventual compromise failed to address some of their primary concerns.
The most expensive, and therefore most confrontational, among the bill’s dozen titles is that entitled simply “Nutrition.” This authorizes the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the next five years. SNAP, which until 2008 had been known as the food stamp program, was first enacted as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in 1964. The program was amended by the 1973 Farm Bill and has been an integral part of farm bills ever since.
This year a movement by conservatives to uncouple the SNAP program from the rest of the bill, championed by Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman, eventually passed the House as did another proposal to cut the SNAP program by $40 billion. These proposals were both rejected by the Senate, which did include SNAP in its version of the farm bill.
The compromise reached by the conference committee cuts SNAP expenditures about $8 billion over the next decade by changing the eligibility rules. Most of the 166 negative votes in House and 32 in the Senate came from either urban legislators who felt the SNAP cuts were too severe or conservative legislators who felt the cuts were insufficient.
All of Indiana’s Congressional delegation except Republican Marlin Stutzman and Democrat Pete Visclosky supported the compromise bill. Stutzman took to the floor of the House to explain his view that the farm programs and the food stamp program should be presented and voted on separately. He stated, “As a farmer and a conservative, I will not vote to take a step backwards.”
In addition to SNAP, the farm bill does actually address a number of farm issues. Significantly, the bill will replace a number of direct subsidy payments to farmers with a new crop insurance program. For the most part, this change is welcomed by Indiana’s row -crop farmers because it will help them manage the risk in relying on a livelihood dependent upon the unpredictable variances of weather and climate.
Livestock farmers in Indiana and across the nation are upset that the bill leaves in place requirements for country of origin labeling (COOL). They argue that the requirement to track every animal from birth to processing will prove to be intolerably expensive. They feel that meat from animals born in a foreign country but raised in the United States is no different than that from animals born and raised domestically. This provision, intended to be consumer friendly by allowing shoppers to identify the source of their meat and poultry will actually raise costs and provide no particular benefit.
In explaining his support of the farm bill, Sen. Dan Coats specifically pointed out that the bill contains a provision he has championed that frees fruit and vegetable growers from acreage planting restrictions that have existed in previous farm bills. The elimination of direct payments will allow farmers to plant crops such as tomatoes without fear of losing those acres from the basis on which direct payments are calculated.
In addition to SNAP, commodity and crop insurance, the farm bill includes titles addressing conservation, trade, rural development, research and extension, forestry, energy and horticulture. It is truly a comprehensive piece of compromise legislation. If either party gains control of both the House and Senate, I’m sure that there will be efforts made to revisit some of the more contentious issues.
I do find it interesting that Congress has adopted a retail cashier strategy in explaining the farm bill to their constituents as they head into the 2014 election. The farm bill is being touted by Congress as “saving” taxpayers millions of dollars. It may have reduced federal expenditures by cutting from certain programs and realizing efficiencies by restructuring others, but the bill still authorizes the expenditure of nearly a trillion dollars.
This is not at all unlike a retail cashier telling me that because of markdowns, discounts and coupons I am actually saving money when I sign my credit card receipt. It may true that you have to spend money to make money, but is disingenuous of both Congress and retailers to tell me I am saving money by spending it.
Kraft is a former head of public affairs for the Indiana Farm Bureau.