Legislation affecting the U.S. food supply is the subject of fierce debate
Last week, the US House of Representatives made an unprecedented move: despite a decades-long trend of fewer and longer legislative bills, it actually split and shortened one of the most notoriously lengthy bills in Congress – the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013 (aka the farm bill).
As a result the bill, described by the Public Health Law Center as “arguably the single most important piece of legislation affecting the nation’s food environment,” might be seeing some major changes. Congress has until September to agree on those changes, or else portions of the bill will expire, potentially endangering the nation’s agricultural economy.
The farm bill covers such extensive topics as food safety regulation, crop subsides, nutrition education, SNAP, land conservation, ethanol production, agricultural research, foreign food aid, and commodities marketing – so why does its fate hang precariously in the balance? The short answer is politics and money.
In June, the Senate passed a version of the farm bill that included modest cuts in funding to SNAP (aka food stamps, used by the nation’s poor to purchase groceries) for the sake of deficit reduction. A few weeks later, the House of Representatives voted on a version of the farm bill which included amendments – introduced by the House’s conservative majority – with more drastic cuts to SNAP. In a surprise outcome, the House was unable to get sufficient support to pass this bill for the first time in the farm bill’s 70+ year history; to many, this was emblematic of the inefficiency that results from highly-partisan gridlock. Most Democrats did not support the bill because they believed the level of funding cuts to SNAP was too great, whereas our most fiscally conservative representatives opposed the bill because the cuts weren’t deep enough.
The bill’s failure to pass was an embarrassment to the House, whose Republican leaders then decided that the only way to recover from the defeat was to separate the bill’s major topics (agriculture and SNAP) into two independent bills and get at least one of those bills passed. Last week, the agricultural portion of the split bill was passed by the House’s conservative majority – without a single Democratic vote. No corresponding bill on SNAP has yet been put up for a vote, leaving many people concerned about the fate of the nation’s poor.
How do changes in the farm bill affect the public?
In order to understand the bill’s influence on the economy, the land, and the public’s health, it helps to have some historical context. The farm bill dates back to the 1930s, when mechanization of agriculture led to large surpluses and falling prices. In 1938, Congress sought to aide suffering farmers and ensure that the food supply remained steady by passing legislation that funded crop insurance, price supports, and marketing quotas.
Population shifts in the following decades, when people moved toward cities and farm communities shrank, led the agricultural interests served by the farm bill to worry about its longevity. Therefore, in the 1970s, rural legislators representing the bill’s agricultural beneficiaries included funds in the bill for the food stamp program – this attracted the support of legislators representing the interests of the urban poor. Today, the food stamp program known as SNAP is considered to be one of our nation’s most important safety nets, especially crucial in times of economic distress. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that it is one of our most effective anti-poverty programs, and reports from the Census Bureau indicate that SNAP lifted 3.9 million people above the poverty line in 2010, decreasing the nation’s poverty level by over 8%.
The SNAP portion of the farm bill currently represents a large percentage of the bill’s total expense; if Congress were to pass a new farm bill like the one that has been in place since 2008, it would cost approximately $1 trillion over the next decade, and 80% of that money would go toward SNAP. The agricultural portion of the bill has also been greatly expanded since 1938; it now includes a labyrinthine set of agricultural subsidies. Additionally, the farm bill now includes various small funds for conservation projects, food aid, etc. To sum up: today’s farm bill is vastly different from the original farm bill.
The original 1938 legislation established that the farm bill must be reviewed approximately every five years. If at the five-year mark it is not renewed with up-to-date policies, the bill reverts back to the policies set in 1938. Until recently, the farm bill passed smoothly at every 5-year-renewal. Some people considered it to be an ideal example of bipartisanship and cross-party collaboration, because it has gotten passed even in times of great political conflict on Capitol Hill. But in today’s political climate of deep budget deficit and fiscally conservative legislators, the renewal process is no longer smooth sailing; members of Congress can’t agree on the level of funding cuts, and they might fail to renew the bill by its due date. The bill’s subsidy policies have evolved so much over time that if a reversion to the 1938 policies were to occur, it could cause great unplanned upheaval of the economy. Many legislators are currently calling for a return to the bipartisan days of yore when ruralists and urbanists, liberals and conservatives alike cooperated to renew the farm bill without hassle.
Bipartisanship or logrolling? Criticisms of the farm bill
But not everyone agrees that an effortless bipartisan process should be the goal. The flip side of the bipartisanship coin is one of the most bemoaned features of the American legislative system: logrolling. For decades, Washington outsiders have opposed the trading of votes between urban and rural legislators – which essentially allows each side’s interests to be served without great scrutiny. Leading nutrition advocates attribute the agricultural subsidies to the rise in obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes, foreign policy experts and humanitarians identify the “foreign aide” portion of the bill as a food dumping scheme that benefits the US rather than the international recipients, and environmental advocates blame the bill’s promotion of agricultural consolidation for the unsustainable trend of monoculture. Some of these criticisms have been allayed by pots of funding for nutrition education, conservation programs, and the like – but this has the effect of making the farm bill look like a big barrel of pork.
For better or worse, the splitting of the farm bill into its respective components for separate rounds of voting would mean that each funding pot must be individually approved by a majority of the legislature, which leads us to the big question of the day: which programs/policies actually have enough support to get passed on their own? The answer might be “none,” in which case we have to consider the consequences of losing the programs, or it might depend on the political climate of the moment. If legislators are truly going to scrutinize each farm bill program at every five-year renewal, large shifts in agricultural policy and food stamps might be more likely to occur on a five-yearly basis. Whether the potential economic turbulence caused by shifting of the political winds could be outweighed by improved agricultural and food aid legislation remains to be seen.
What is best for the nation’s health?
Considering the farm bill’s effects on various elements of American life, public health advocates might find themselves considering a major philosophical question: which is more important, the reduction of agricultural subsidies which support an unhealthy food supply, or increases in funding for positive public health programs? Even more broadly: will people be healthier if the government just steps out of the way, or if it provides support in the face of detrimental economic and/or corporate pressure?
Unfortunately, the House appears reluctant to do either of the above. Though some critics have referred to the splitting of the bill as a “divide and conquer” method through which fiscal conservatives would reduce funds allocated both to agriculture and to nutrition, the reality is that the agricultural portion of the bill which was passed last week had few drastic changes. The main difference between it and the agricultural portion of the 2008 farm bill is that money was re-directed from a subsidy system of agricultural support to a crop insurance system of agricultural support.
In fact, the Environmental Working Group believes it will be the costliest farm bill in history, and conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation has criticized House Republicans for their support of the “bloated” agricultural bill. No, the majority’s goal was not to reduce funds from every aspect of the farm bill, but specifically to reduce funding for SNAP. Fiscal conservatives point to the recent rises in SNAP expenditure as evidence that the program is ballooning out of control, but the rise in expenditures during recessionary times is an expected outcome of a program specifically aimed at alleviating financial hardship; changes in policy could be considered short-sighted or even, as some political opponents claim, a sign of the party’s hatred for the urban poor.
However, right now it looks as though the goals of the House’s conservative majority will not come to pass. Though the House may yet pass a very whittled-down SNAP bill, the potentially huge cuts to SNAP are not likely to endure the House’s conference with the Senate. If large cuts are sustained or SNAP is simply left out, the White House has threatened to veto the final bill.
Given the shake-up of the bill’s renewal process, and the fact that the agricultural section and the SNAP section of the bill may now be considered separately, legislators will likely be keeping an ear to the ground regarding their constituents’ views on each. It is a good time to make your opinions known.
Please share your thoughts as nutritionists, public health advocates, and citizens!