Olivier Douliery/Pool/Sipa USA

Olivier Douliery/Pool/Sipa USA

As of last week, President Obama’s number one economic priority is a new farm bill. He recently stated:

Number one, Congress needs to pass a farm bill that helps rural communities grow and protects vulnerable Americans. For decades, Congress found a way to compromise and pass farm bills without fuss. (Emphasis added)

Indeed, Congress has passed farm bills without fuss—which is the problem. Legislators have combined food stamps, which account for 80 percent of the farm bill, with agriculture programs for political reasons.

Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, Senator Thad Cochran (R–MS), argues that the farm bill should include food stamps “purely from a political perspective. It helps get the farm bill passed.”

Farm bill politics is about one thing: maintaining the status quo in one fashion or another. Many legislators who want to maintain the agriculture status quo are willing to do so at the expense of food stamp reform, and vice versa. The bill has historically combined food stamps with agricultural programs because legislators who would otherwise seek reform stay quiet in order to maintain the status quo of their favored program.

The deal is simple: Leave my program alone and I will leave your program alone. The result is no reform, and the American people suffer while special interests flourish.

Because agriculture programs and food stamps are combined at the outset, there is little or no congressional oversight or review of the farm bill. Regardless of one’s positions on these issues, Americans deserve careful consideration of legislation that has such far-reaching implications.

The numbers show how unimportant congressional review has been to legislators in the 113th Congress:

  • The House and Senate agriculture committee have held zero hearings on food stamps.
  • The Senate has held zero agriculture committee hearings on agriculture-related farm bill programs.
  • The House has held just one hearing on agriculture-related farm bill programs—on horticulture issues.
  • The House allowed zero amendments to be considered for either its agriculture-only farm bill or its food stamp bill.

Farm bills should be about policy, not politics. If reforming agriculture programs and food stamps is a fuss, then there needs to be a lot more fuss, especially when the proposed costs of the House and Senate farm bills (nearly $1 trillion) are even greater than the proposed costs of the Obama stimulus bill.

Separation Is the Solution

The House farm bill took the important step of ensuring that the agriculture programs are not authorized for the same amount of time as the food stamp program. Doing so means that eventually food stamps and agriculture programs will be debated and passed separately—which would improve the chances of reform.

Separation is probably more essential for agriculture reform than for food stamp reform. While there is some modest food stamp reform in the House farm bill, both bills do virtually nothing to reform agriculture programs.

The public overwhelmingly supports separation, and there is diverse support for separation in the media, from The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal. Representative Marlin Stutzman (R–IN) led a group of 27 House members who sent a letter to the farm bill conferees expressing strong support for separation.

Separation is a must. It is a necessary procedural step toward real reform.