Historically the Farm Bill has expired about every five years, with adjustments made and new bills passed each time. With the partisan bickering in Washington, this year the bill is overdue. A 90-day extension was passed to allow more time for a new bill. The extension expired at the end of September, and a conference committee is attempting to resolve differences between the House version and Senate version of the bill that passed their respective houses.
Two of Alabama’s seven Representatives are on the 29-member House conference committee, Martha Roby from Alabama’s Second District and Mike Rogers from our own Third District. Rogers is a member of the Agriculture Committee, and regularly tells constituents that agriculture is the largest industry in the state—with more than 48,000 farms and an agricultural exports of $1 billion.
It’s big business in Alabama, with the forestry industry alone generating $13 billion per year. About 70 percent of the state is covered with forest land, about 22 million acres—the third highest in the 48 contiguous states. Alabama ranks second nationally for producing catfish, third for broiler production peanuts and sod, fifth for pecans and sweet potatoes, eighth in cotton production and the list goes on.
But the Farm Bill isn’t just about farms. It’s also about Food Stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In town hall visits earlier this year, Rogers said the bills were combined as a way to get the bills passed. He said that farmers in rural areas need the votes of urban and suburban Congressman to get farm bills passed, and rural votes are needed for Food Stamps, so the pressure is on everyone to get it done.
The USDA sees it as a job creation bill to help rural communities grow, expand and support new businesses, a deficit reduction bill to reform the farmers’ safety net, and a nutrition bill to put good food on the table of families in need of assistance.
Both houses of Congress and both parties agree on cutting costs and making certain changes to the program. Direct subsidies to farmers appear to be on the way out, at least in good years. Plans to increase support for crop insurance are likely to be approved, and supports to help in bad years.
If there are disagreements over job creation aspects of the bill, they haven’t reached the forefront of the debate.
But look for a fight over cuts to the SNAP program.
Rogers said the bill stalled last summer over how much to cut food stamps compared to cuts to farmers. Proposals then wanted to cut both sides equally. But with 80 percent of the bill going to food stamps and 20 percent going to farmers, rural legislators refused to support it.
The Senate version of the bill called for $400 million in cuts to the SNAP program; the House version called for $4 billion in cuts. It’s turned into a battle of competing safety nets, with the interests of the poor and the interests of farmers pitted against each other.
Budget hawks have focused on the increased number of people receiving food stamps, and the impact that has on the federal budget. They seem to ignore the fact that the number of people receiving food stamps has increased because more people are in need. While the economy overall seems to be improving, wages are stagnant for a large percentage of the population, and too many are still unemployed or underemployed.
The goal of moving toward a balanced federal budget is commendable, but to try to balance the budget on the backs of the poor is a choice that lacks compassion and mercy. A new Farm Bill needs to be passed, and it needs to be one that addresses the needs of the least powerful among us.