ST. ALBANS — The House of Representatives passed a stripped down Farm Bill last Thursday night without dairy programs and food stamps. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., called it “a political stunt.”
The bill passed 216-208, without a single Democrat supporting it.
“This is less a Farm Bill than a leadership designed train wreck,” said Welch. “This has got all the earmarks of a political fix.”
The bill was debated under rules prohibiting legislators from offering amendments.
Since the 1970s the Farm Bill has included nutrition programs for the poor such as funding for free and reduced school lunches. The bill also includes funding for the nation’s largest nutrition program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps.
As long as funding is still appropriated for the food stamp program it will continue as is until the House and Senate can agree on changes to the program. President Barack Obama has threatened to veto any bill cutting food stamps too deeply.
In June, the House voted against a Farm Bill that cut more than $20 billion from the program. Many Democrats opposed the cuts, while some Republicans felt they didn’t go far enough.
In Vermont, the typical food stamp benefit is $4 per day. The program helps to feed 1 in 7 Americans, and 63 percent of the households receiving food stamps include children. The program also serves a large number of elderly and disabled Americans.
The cost of the program has doubled since the beginning of the Great Recession five years ago. However, it is also the government program providing the greatest amount of economic stimulus, according to Moody’s economists.
Also stripped from the revised Farm Bill were programs to assist dairy farmers in stabilizing milk prices and insuring them against sharp declines in milk prices or increases in feed prices.
Currently, the bill must be reauthorized every five years because otherwise decades-old laws that would dramatically alter food prices would go into effect. The House bill repeals those laws, eliminating the incentive for legislators to regularly pass a Farm Bill.
However, the bill makes permanent crop programs that have drawn heavy criticism for their cost and health impacts, including payments to landowners who don’t actually grow any crops. Welch said the changes would create permanent entitlements. “They’re doing something that’s reckless fiscally,” said Welch of his Republican colleagues.
Many of those crop programs have been criticized by food activists who argue they subsidize the growth and production of unhealthy, processed foods made from corn and corn syrup, while providing only token support for healthier fruits and vegetables. America’s farm policies, argue activists such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, are contributing to rising health care costs by heavily subsidizing unhealthy foods.
Pollan, for example, has long argued for separating nutrition programs from crop programs in order to make it easier to cut the crop subsidies.
However, Republican legislators are solely interested in cutting programs for the poor, suggested Welch.
The alliance between urban legislators, who were the primary advocates for nutrition programs, and rural legislators seeking support for their farmers and communities has kept the farm bill secure. The last Farm Bill in 2006 passed with a veto-proof majority.
“There was strength in unity,” said Welch. The support of urban legislators is important for the passage of programs like the dairy stabilization program, he said.
In June, the House Agriculture Committee produced a bill that unraveled on the floor because of amendments supported by the House leadership, said Welch. House Speaker John Boehner supported an amendment that removed the dairy price stabilization program, costing the bill the support of representatives from dairy areas. Majority Leader Eric Cantor supported an amendment that would have created additional limits on food stamps, such as drug testing of recipients, further alienating Democrats.
“It cracked the coalition,” said Welch. “Now the leadership is embarrassed.”
The Senate has already passed a Farm Bill, which contains the proposed dairy programs and SNAP, which the Senate cut by $4 billion. Normally, a bill passed by both houses would go to a conference committee to iron out the differences. It is unclear what will happen in this case given the vast differences in the bills.
The House leadership has vowed to bring a food stamp bill to the floor soon.
The stripped down version of the bill was opposed by a wide range of organizations, including farm groups and advocates of farm policy reform. In total, Welch said there were more than 500 organizations opposed to the bill.