The failure of the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a Farm Bill on June 20 leads one to wonder if it is simply asking too much of Congress to continue to pass commodity legislation bundled into a nutrition assistance program.
The nutrition title was added into the Farm Bill in the 1960s (the bill itself is rooted in permanent legislation dating to 1938 and 1949) and is generally seen as popular with legislators representing an increasingly urban America. It should be pointed out that the current Farm Bill difficulties have not much to do with resistance to mandatory commodity title, crop insurance, rural development or trade promotion programs, although there is certainly a warm current flowing in favor of savings garnered by reforming some of the commodity programs.
The current difficulty has much to do with gamesmanship but also with fundamental disagreements over the appropriate scope of a nutrition program that, for the last 40 years or so, has been part and parcel of the bill for authorizing a whole host of mandatory policy to support American agriculture. There may be good reasons to keep it in, but there is every reason to rationally examine the current structure of the Farm Bill with the question in mind “will it continue to serve for agriculture?”
According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, “most of the current $973 billion baseline is for domestic nutrition assistance programs ($764 billion, or 79%), primarily the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The rest, about $208 billion, is divided among various agriculture-related programs, primarily crop insurance ($84 billion, or 8.6%), farm commodity price and income supports ($59 billion, or 6.0%), and conservation ($62 billion, or 6.3%.)”
The purpose of the Farm Bill is to authorize mandatory spending on programs like commodity programs, conservation, crop insurance, agricultural trade promotion and rural development. The resources to fund these programs come from the annual Agricultural appropriations bill. Nutrition is one of the categories in Agriculture appropriations, as is the Commodity Credit Corporation which is the vehicle that funds most of the farm programs. Is is time to consider another piece of legislation to authorize nutrition which is 79% of the current Farm Bill baseline? Not because there is a question of give-and-take. Nutritional spending as a percent of Farm Bill spending is increasing, but it does not mean that agricultural spending is decreasing for that reason. Rather, maybe there are sound structural reasons and maybe it is a good historical juncture to consider a new way through this process.