Perhaps the best thing about the Farm Bill signed into law Friday by President Barack Obama is that it passed Congress with bipartisan support — even though everybody has reason to find fault with it. In the inevitably polarized world that is Washington, D.C., that can be considered a compliment.
The bill, some three years in the making and the subject of incessant political wrangling, essentially sets U.S. farm policy for the next five years and is expected to cost nearly $1 trillion over the next decade. The most controversial provision is an $8 billion reduction over 10 years in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, colloquially known as food stamps. “I’m very disappointed that this compromise makes harmful cuts to nutrition programs for low-income families in Washington state,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
And yet, Murray voted in favor of the bill, which points out the conundrum inherent in the 2014 Farm Bill. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., championed the bill on the Senate floor, saying: “The Farm Bill is a jobs bill for our nation and for Washington state. It maintains our investment in research and exports so that American farmers can thrive and win in the expanding global marketplace. And it helps get more goods to market — whether that’s a farmers market around the corner or a new market in South Korea.”
That is important to Washington. In addition to being the nation’s leading apple producer, the state ranks among the leaders in wheat production and potato production. For Washington, the benefits of the new law include money for agricultural research, with some of it going to Washington State University. Glynda Becker, a WSU spokeswoman, told the (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, “For us to do our research, we need to have consistency.”
On the other hand, the Farm Bill is chock full of subsidies for agribusiness, which means that Obama’s support is worthy of a head scratch. The president’s own fiscal 2014 budget proposal said, “The farm sector continues to be one of the strongest sectors of the U.S. economy. … With the value of both crop and livestock production at all-time highs, income support payments based upon historical levels of production can no longer be justified.”
The new law eliminates payments to farmers for not growing crops, yet it expands a program for crop insurance and other goodies benefitting farmers. For example, there are new subsidies for rice and peanut growers that kick in when prices drop. As The Washington Post wrote editorially about the bill, “It is a case study in everything that’s wrong with Congress. This is a bill of, by and for the agriculture lobby, which, through sheer power and self-interested persistence, ground down reform advocates over three years.”
A strong, centralized farm policy is essential for the nation’s security and for its future. The danger of poor agricultural policy could be seen in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which was caused as much by poor farm policy as it was by climate.
So while the Farm Bill was necessary, it also points out a dichotomy of interests in this country. The new law provides plenty of security and largesse for farmers, yet it cuts $800 million a year from money that states used to supplement food stamp payments to the poor — making it easy to see which group has the more powerful lobbyists. After considering all the factors in the new law, it’s almost enough to make us wish for the halcyon days when Congress did nothing.