Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are currently trying to divide two elements of national policy that have long been viewed as two sides to the same coin: supporting farmers and feeding the hungry. Because, you know, farming has nothing to do with food.
The move comes after the House failed to pass a farm bill in June. This mammoth piece of legislation, which comes before Congress every five years, is a big deal: It controls national farm and nutrition policy. But many Republicans opposed the House bill because they thought its massive $20 billion cut to the food stamps program (aka SNAP) was too small.
Apparently, we underestimated the depth of the House GOP’s hatred of poor people food stamps. It used to be “hold your nose and vote for it” hatred. But now it’s Bible-misquoting, poison-pill-amendment-sponsoring, throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater hatred. (Message for the House GOP: I do not think the “War on Poverty” means what you think it means.)
The House GOP’s second-in-command, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), is leading the charge to split the bill, but getting nutrition funding out of the farm bill is a longstanding priority of conservatives — one conservative House Republican referred to the “unholy alliance” between the farm lobby and the anti-hunger lobby. The last thing in the world farmers should be worrying about is feeding people, right?
The irony, of course, is that American farm policy is now as much, if not more, about supporting fuel, feed, and fiber products — corn and soy for livestock and ethanol, along with cotton for clothing — as it is about food. This fact, however, is more coincidence than strategy as far as the House GOP is concerned.
No, mostly what we see is an odd disconnect: In a time of record farm profits and sky-high commodity prices, Republicans are, for the most part, willing to support farm subsidies and crop insurance benefits that mostly go to the largest, wealthiest farms. Corporate welfare is apparently fine. But actual welfare for actual poor people? Not so much.
Despite what most Republicans seem to believe, the link between farm policy and hunger policy goes way back — to the Great Depression. Some of the original farm supports were government purchase programs — a form of which still exist today — in which the government buys surplus food to maintain prices and then distributes it to the hungry. It was a direct link, thanks to the feds, between farm and plate. Food stamps also go back to that period — and were originally actual stamps that had to be bought with cash and then doubled in value when used to buy food (sound familiar?).
However, times have changed. The modern food-stamps program is one in which low-income people get the benefit (now in the form of a debit card) for free. The program went free in the 1970s and the credit mostly goes to that raging socialist, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas). It is now impossible to imagine that a Republican would be an architect of a massive expansion of benefits for the poor. But that’s what happened. And now a very different Republican Party wants to break the link between farm and nutrition policy once and for all.
In an ideal world, there is a great deal of sense in dealing with farm policy separately from nutrition policy. It raises the possibility of broadening the debate. For example, farm policy, which involves environmental, insurance, and even banking issues, should probably be co-authored by legislators who handle such things. And it would follow that legislators with expertise in health should be involved in nutrition policy. Right now, it’s all handled by farm-state legislators who sit on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. Breaking up the bill might change that legislative monopoly — a change that’s long been sought by farm-policy reformers.
But in case you didn’t notice, we don’t live in an ideal world. Given the current crop of legislators, breaking the bill up will likely be tantamount to killing both parts. For many conservatives in Congress, however, that aspect is more feature than bug. House Speaker John Boehner has nothing but disdain for the farm bill. He allowed Cantor to keep it from coming up for a vote before the 2012 election, and now he’s open to Cantor’s efforts to split the bill in two.
It’s an idea that doesn’t sit well with anti-hunger advocates or the farm lobby, both of which would be left at the whim of Congress’s annual spending fights if a farm bill doesn’t pass. That’s why a group of 500 agriculture organizations — business and lobbying groups — wrote a letter to Boehner insisting that the farm bill be passed intact, i.e. with food stamps included. They understand that a path to passage probably only exists if the two parts are dealt with together.
Breaking the bill apart will put Congress in what Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, calls “uncharted waters” — although, given that the farm bill had never failed in the House before, I think it’s fair to say we’re already off the charts. Should the GOP try to break the bill in two, that’s more like falling off the edge of the world.
But brinksmanship is the only legislative game that the House GOP is willing to play, even if they have no idea how it’s going to turn out. And they don’t seem to really care, regardless of the consequences for farmers and the hungry or the rest of us.