February 5, 2014
The old adage “all good things come to those who wait” likely won’t apply to the recent House and Senate Conference Committee that is passing the Agriculture Act of 2014. For months, work on this farm bill has dragged on, past the expiration of the law it replaces. It has been necessary to use extensions of the expiring law in order to keep programs running and to prevent the underlying agriculture law from 1949 from going into effect, along with the dire consequences predicted if that were to happen.
The five-year, 959-page bill cuts approximately $23 billion in farm programs (although the Congressional Budget Office puts the figure slightly lower at $16.6 billion) through three cuts to three types of programs. The first cut is $8 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the food stamp program. Another cut is the reduction of 23 conservation programs down to 13, for a savings of $6 billion, and a third cut is the $19 billion in farm program payments, which was achieved in part by ending the direct subsidy program, a program that paid farmers whether they produced anything or not. While the farm bill has a five-year authorization, the budget savings are projected over 10 years.
SNAP benefits are the most egregious cut in the bill. An $8.5 billion reduction over 10 years amounts to an $880 million annual cut and translates into an approximate $90 monthly cut for about 850,000 households. While $90 does not seem like a large amount, for a family qualifying for these benefits, it is significant. This $8.5 billion cut may actually have a larger impact since it is not clear if the budget baseline is the previous funding level, or the level of funding after the draconian cuts imposed through sequestration, the automatic process that kicked in when House Republicans blocked a budget agreement last fall that shut down the government.
While this reduction is less than the draconian $40 billion cut approved by the House of Representatives, it is more than twice the amount of cuts approved by the Senate. CLF did not support any reductions in SNAP. In addition, the onerous provision adopted by the House linking work requirements to receipt of SNAP benefits was watered down to be a pilot program in select states. I hope someone can explain to me the logic of the House opposing the extension unemployment benefits, which provide some support while supporting requiring people to look for work, and their interesting in requiring SNAP recipients to work. According to Feeding America, “76% of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits.”  These statistics clearly show how ridiculous a work requirement is to receive SNAP benefits.
On the positive side, amendments to eliminate Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements were not included in the final bill. COOL would require labels on meat stating where the product was raised and slaughtered. CLF views COOL as a basic consumer right-to-know issue.
The provisions included in the conference report will make crop insurance the primary support program for agriculture so it is very important that conferees included a provision requiring basic conservation practices on highly erodible lands and wetlands for those participating in the crop insurance program. CLF had advocated for this position, citing the importance of conservation programs for clean water, nutrient control, land productivity, and carbon sequestration. A downside to relying on crop insurance as the main support for farmers was the increased subsidy to crop insurance companies contained in the bill. That, coupled with weak payment limits to producers, could become a budget sinkhole.
Additional good news in the Agriculture Act of 2014 is the increased focus on support for vegetable and organic production. There is in an increase in research for “specialty” crops, a consolidation of pest and disease research, a boost in specialty crop block grants, and produce-focused nutrition. For the first time, organic producers can insure their crop at the contract price as opposed to the convention crop price.
While the details of the new Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program have not been worked out, similar programs have helped increase the use of SNAP benefits at farmers markets. This program will provide matching funds for farmers markets to provide incentives for SNAP recipients to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables. The program is funded at $20 million for five years.
There was also a positive provision in international food aid. A pilot program allowing international food aid programs to purchase more local and regional foods was increased to $80 million a year. OxfamAmerica said that it will provide food assistance for an additional 1.8 million people at no additional cost to taxpapers.
Many have called this bill “historic” or providing “dramatic” change. After watching several farm bills be developed and passed, my view is that this was an incremental bill, just as most farm bills are. What was dramatic and historic was the collapse of the legislative process that made this a three-year ordeal instead of a more typical one-year process. This bill could have been achieved two and a half years ago and there is no valid reason for this drawn-out, dysfunctional process.