On Friday, President Obama signed the 2014 farm bill into law, complete with a change to the food stamps program intended to save the federal government $8.7 billion. Republicans wanted much deeper cuts, and some of us liberals thought it was unwise to make any cuts to a vital, extremely effective antipoverty program (crazy bleeding hearts). So, yay compromise. If that’s your thing, you can join the president in praising Congress for being bipartisan, solving problems, etc.
It looks like Washington is about to do what recently seemed a far-off dream: actually enact a farm bill. From a farm-reform perspective, the bill that the House passed and the Senate is now debating is uninspiring, but it could be worse. The same goes for nutrition assistance: the bill doesn’t drastically cut SNAP (food stamps) eligibility and benefits as House Republicans sought to do, but it does cut benefits by more than 1 percent over the next decade.
Ezra Klein’s work at the Washington Post is indispensable; he brings much insight to the task of making domestic policy accessible to those of us who only follow it part time. But I’m not buying this one: There’s a tendency among some on the left and, with the “libertarian populists,” some on the right, to portray the interests of corporate American and the interests of low-income Americans as directly opposed to each other. That’s not true. They can conflict, of course — it’s easy enough to imagine a proposal to raise taxes on corporations in order to fund a low-income tax cut — but they’re not always in tension. Sometimes they’re even in concert. Sometimes, sure.
In theory, splitting up the farm bill to deal separately with farm policy and nutrition assistance makes a lot of sense. Farm subsidies used to go mostly to actual farmers who could use the help. So while the pairing of farm aid and food aid was always politically motivated, it also made some sense: the farm bill was safety-net legislation, and food stamps fit right into that. As agriculture has changed, agricultural policy has become more and more of a mess of corporate welfare that's against the public interest. And one big thing protecting this status quo has been the fact that liberals can't vote against a business-as-usual farm bill, because it's also how hungry people get fed.
The money in the farm bill is dominated by food stamps. The debate over it is dominated by everything else. But debate or no debate, the Senate wants to cut food stamps a little, the House wants to cut them a lot more, and now GOP Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas wants to bring House Democrats around to the farm bill by making sure food stamps will get slashed regardless.
It’s farm bill season again. That’s right: time for our divided government to get together and reauthorize the five-year omnibus bill that affects everyone who grows, sells or eats food—or at least to go through the motions for a while before punting again like last year.
So it’s looking unlikely that Washington will do anything to prevent the sequester, the automatic spending cuts put in place to try to force Washington to find a way forward on spending, from starting to take effect tomorrow. The president and congressional leaders will meet tomorrow to discuss next steps. Hardly anyone likes the sequester—it was designed to be disliked—but no one has the right combination of power and incentives to simply repeal it, either.
U.S. farm policy badly needs an overhaul. But first, amid the worst drought in decades, Congress needs to pass an uninspiring farm bill.
A breakfast frequently served at my son’s school—where over half the children receive government-supported meals—consists of commercially produced French toast sticks and syrup. The list of ingredients on the package for this meal is as long as this paragraph. It includes not only partially hydrogenated soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup, but also more mystifying additives like gelatinized wheat starch, calcium caseinate, lecithin, guar gum and cellulose gum. The story of how these items arrive at a school cafeteria and are designated as food is a long and complicated one involving the interaction of farmers, government policy makers and the food industry. The modern story of why we eat what we eat begins in the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt faced the challenges of the Depression. He saw that many farmers were poor and that one in every five people in the country was undernourished. Farmers and other Americans were too vulnerable, he believed, to the cycles of boom and bust.