Farm bill legislation is not on the House of Representatives calendar for this week, but within the next 12 legislative days before the August recess, GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor said, "Members should be prepared to act on a revised farm bill.” If you remember, the Senate has approved a new five year program for agriculture, and the June 20 House effort to do the same failed to get a majority supporting its own Ag Committee’s proposal.
The key word is “revised,” and everyone following the progress of the farm bill proposals and debate for the past two years knows the word refers to separation of food and nutrition programs out of the farm bill.
Why is that a problem, since farm policy addresses rural America and food and nutrition policy is a metropolitan priority? Why is that a problem, since producing food and consuming food have a complex and lengthy economic path separating each other? Why is that a problem, since food and nutrition programs make up 80% of USDA spending and the Agriculture Department could just focus on the $20 billion for conservation, rural development, commodity programs and crop insurance?
It is expected that the “revised” farm bill proposal will only reflect agriculture programs since the Democrats voted against the first proposal because it did not spend enough on food and nutrition programs and the Republicans who voted against it said it spent too much. Without any middle ground in that debate, the GOP leadership is proposing a solution that allows the House to vote on a separate farm policy and a separate nutrition policy.
Driving the proposal is the conservative Heritage Foundation, which wants the separation as well as conversion of the food and nutrition programs into a “work activation” program for recipients of food stamps. Democrats withdrew their support of the House farm bill proposal when an amendment was approved that required food stamp recipients to work.
President Hoover had opposed a government-funded food program saying “the hungry and unemployed will be cared for by our sense of voluntary organization and community service.” Although he was defeated in 1932, it was not until 1938 when President Roosevelt initiated the program, but ironically opposed giving out free money and food without requiring work.
In that period of the Great Depression, USDA programs were initiated and eventually absorbed food stamps, which allowed consumers to have surplus food that farmers could not sell. The combination kept the nation from starving and kept farmers producing food and away from city unemployment lines. Yes, today is different, but nutrition is still an issue, while the price of corn is above the 10¢ level of the 1930s.
The problems with hunger in America will not dissolve in the next two years. And in that same time span, larger crops could easily push commodity prices down to levels of unprofitability, based on current production costs. The Great Depression will not return, but there will be some parallels.
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That is one of the reasons why last Wednesday, 532 farm organizations sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner saying, “We believe that splitting the nutrition title from the rest of the bill could result in neither farm nor nutrition programs passing, and urge you to move a unified farm bill forward.” They promised support of the food programs, which were not addressed by farm groups in their initial lobbying for the farm bill.
For decades, the farm bill has enjoyed bi-partisan support, and urban members Congress vote for it because of the food and nutrition programs, just as rural Congressmen support the farm safety net. If farm and food policy were split, there is no reason for an urban Congressman to vote for soil conservation and crop insurance.
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