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Farm Bill Reform? Not So Fast

The House has a chance to make substantive reform a possibility. Will it go through with it? That’s another question.

While everyone was obsessing over the Obamacare-shutdown drama on Capitol Hill, the US House of Representatives quietly voted on Saturday to rejoin its food stamp bill with its agriculture subsidies bill – two measures that traditionally make up the US Farm Bill.  I recently discussed some of the problems with the subsidy bill, but a few free market advocates (and subsidy critics) nevertheless cheered Saturday’s House vote because it, for the first time in ages, de-linked the timing of the Farm Bill’s food stamp and farm subsidy programs: food stamps would be authorized for three years and agriculture programs for five years.  Heritage’s Daren Bakst explains the move and its potential significance:

In order to make it far less likely that the programs will be put back together again, food stamps and farm programs must have different reauthorization schedules, with at least a two-year time difference. A one-year difference could easily result in both programs being on the same reauthorization schedule again…


Before there can be real reform of the farm bill, there must be separation of the agriculture programs from the food stamp program. The current farm bill isn’t really a farm bill at all: In terms of spending, it’s predominantly a food stamp bill—about 80 percent of the costs are devoted to food stamps.


For decades, there has been an unholy alliance of rural legislators who want to push costly farm programs and urban legislators who want to push food stamps. Politicians don’t even bother to hide the fact that it’s all about politics…. By promoting separation through staggered terms, the House is helping to take politics out of future farm bill debates and making real, substantive reform a possibility.

Bakst is totally right that staggering the food stamp and farm subsidy parts of the Farm Bill is a necessary step to ensuring long-term reform of both because it severs the longstanding “urban-rural alliance”.  However, for those of us who want real reform (and are even willing to wait five more years to get it), one critical flaw undermines the real value of Saturday’s vote: many of the most pernicious subsidy programs are made permanent in the House bill.

I reached out to Bakst today to clarify this point:


Thus, unless Saturday’s version of the Farm Bill changed the text that Bakst reviewed on Sunday, commodity programs like the costly and immoral US sugar program would be made permanent if the House bill were signed into law.  Previously, these programs sunset every five years and, as such, were under constant threat of reform or termination.  And even if they survived those efforts, the programs at least got some much-needed public attention (cockroaches and sunlight and all that).

If the House bill becomes law, however, the US sugar program and other expensive, market-distorting, cronytastic policies would no longer be threatened with such scrutiny.  This is a big problem if the whole point of Saturday’s momentous vote to stagger the subsidy and food stamp programs was to set the table for real, long term reform because some of the worst US farm subsidies would be shielded from any such efforts.

In short, the House bill plays the long game, but removes some of the dirtiest players from the field of play.  And, as such, the commodity programs’ permanence dramatically undercuts the value of the House bill’s procedural reforms.

I guess there’s still time for this problem to be resolved when the House and Senate bills are brought to conference, but if the newly-permanent programs remain in the final bill, there will be very little reason for any fiscal conservative (or taxpayer) to support it.

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The views expressed herein are Scott Lincicome’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer, White & Case, LLP.

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