Farm Bill, Part 2: Divide (the Bill) and Conquer (the Conservatives?) | Citizens Against Government Waste

Farm Bill, Part 2: Divide (the Bill) and Conquer (the Conservatives?)

The WasteWatcher

Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.), Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has proposed a strategy to move the chamber’s recently failed 2013 Farm Bill forward to passage by the House and on to conference with the Senate’s already passed version.  Stung by the unprecedented defeat of a recurring piece of legislation once considered “must pass” by previous Congresses, Chairman Lucas is apparently threatening the old adage of “be careful what you ask for, you may get it.”

To wit, conservative groups have long criticized the marriage of the so-called “nutrition title” to the portion of the bill dealing with agricultural commodities, such as peanuts, cotton, sugar, and dairy (just to name a few).  Some 80% of the Farm Bill is actually dedicated to policies surrounding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as Food Stamps.  While few decry the need of a legitimate food safety net, many more are concerned about the explosion of dependency on the once-stigmatized program:  according to an item that appeared in the Daily Caller on June 18th, 2013, the cost of food stamps has quadrupled in the last decade from about $20 billion to $80 billion.  More of a hammock than a safety net, perhaps?

So, in their efforts to implement more reform of these bloated programs rather than less, some conservatives have argued for dissolution of this “unholy alliance” of rural commodity special interests and urban liberals intent on spreading the food-stamp “wealth.”  Specifically, these right-of-center groups have advocated for “splitting the bill,” so that it is once again a true Farm Bill – as opposed to the Food Stamp Bill that it has become.

Ironically, in a cynical ploy that would result in a bill worse than what the Democrat-dominated Senate passed, Chairman Lucas is ostensibly giving the critics what they want – two separate bills – as though this is a nod to the Right’s demands.  To the contrary: if he succeeds with this  fit of pique, the gentleman from Oklahoma (ironically, an “all-red state”) will be ensuring that (a) no cuts whatsoever are enacted to the bloated Food Stamp program and (b) only some very modest reforms will become part of the new permanent farm law, with chances of any future reforms considerably more difficult.

Here’s why.  Presumably, the conferees would consider the Senate’s comprehensive Farm Bill, while taking up only the House’s agricultural commodity title.  With no counterpart nutrition title, the Senate conferees (dominated by Democrats) would gladly recede to the House’s absent version, which – with no counterpart nutrition bill – would effectively result in a return to the status quo.  Thus, no significant House cuts to food stamps, not even the much more modest Senate cuts.  And, lest we forget, if the House ever wanted to go to conference separately on the nutrition title – presumably with considerably more cuts than those in the Senate – the upper chamber (at least under its current partisan composition) would not likely play along.  Bottom line: no food stamp savings, period.

Then, there is the agricultural commodity title.  Chairman Lucas is proposing to take the committee-passed legislation, incorporate those amendments that succeeded during floor debate, and add a repeal of the 1949 “permanent farm law,” policy so onerous that the Congress has always either passed the Farm Bill before its current authorization has expired, or, as last year, simply extended the previous bill’s policies until a new Farm Bill can be passed.  In short, doing anything else (to include kicking the can down the road a year or two, via extension) is preferable to living under the permanent farm law’s constraints.

Thus, the 2013 Farm Bill would become the new permanent farm law.  But, in so doing, all current programs would become permanent, with no expiration of authorization, and without such a Damoclean sword hanging overhead to spur them to action, Congress would presumably have no incentives to ever re-visit the arcane policies governing various commodities.  Reform would become even more difficult than it already is – short of some major crisis affecting one crop or another.

If all such Soviet-style subsidies and protections were able to be excised from the 2013 Farm Bill before it does become permanent farm law, such a course might not be so bad.  But the truly insidious part of Chairman Lucas’ scheme can be found in the final piece of this puzzle.  The newly revived legislation would be hurried through the Congress under a “closed rule” – that is, with no additional reform amendments.  Without the opportunity to secure much more reform before the bill heads to conference, conservatives and other reformers would surely get the short end of the cornstalk.

While the Lucas stratagem may seem to back his fellow Representatives into a corner, reform-minded Republicans might consider calling the Chairman’s bluff – but only after winning a more open rule for debate.  Splitting the bills would set a necessary precedent to end the rural-vs.-urban logrolling that has only exacerbated wasteful spending and crony “crop-italism.”  And pushing common-sense reform amendments – for dairy, sugar, peanuts, crop insurance, and the like – would at least force some hesitation, if not contemplation, by the conferees in their business-as-usual trading of farm favors.