Until a crisis arose last month over the debt ceiling, the Farm Bill was expected to be the most significant challenge facing Congress this year. When lawmakers return to session following a Fourth of July recess, that challenge will take center stage.
The Farm Bill is a multiyear omnibus package of legislation that funds U.S. nutrition, conservation and commodity programs and typically is passed every five years. The current bill expires Sept. 30, meaning lawmakers once again must help determine how Americans feed themselves, support farmers and protect the environment.
For example, the section of the bill known as “Title VI: Rural Development” contains provisions for workforce housing development, water infrastructure, broadband and telecommunications, business development, energy and utilities. In other words, the legislation is about much more than farming, and expenditures spelled out in this year’s bill are expected to be about $1.5 trillion over 10 years.
Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, has held listening sessions with farmers this year in preparation for the legislation. “I’m committed to making the voices of Southwest Washington heard in the upcoming Farm Bill,” Perez said in March. “These leaders feed and fuel Southwest Washington and the entire country.”
But the Farm Bill is so large and so significant to so many Americans that the cacophony of voices often drowns out reasonable discussion and diminishes the focus of the legislation.
Typically, approximately 80 percent of the bill’s spending falls under the category of nutrition, primarily the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). That section has generated partisan wrangling over the years and is likely to do so again. As demonstrated by the debt ceiling crisis, conservatives in the House of Representatives are willing to halt necessary legislation in an effort to secure minor spending cuts.
Currently, individuals aged 18 to 49 are required to work at least 20 hours per week in order to receive SNAP benefits for more than three months over a three-year period. The debt plan signed this month increases the upper age limit to 54, and additional negotiations are expected as the Farm Bill is debated.
“If they screw around with SNAP, there will be no farm bill,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass, said.
Given the acrimony in Congress, observers say it is likely that no agreement will be reached and the current bill will be extended. But representatives should not pass up the chance to create legislation that addresses environmental issues and provides safety nets for American farmers and consumers.
For rural communities, that means everything from expanding broadband internet access (which Perez has emphasized since taking office) to protecting water rights to defining environmental regulations. It also means nutrition assistance.
Conservatives promote the trope that the SNAP program supports urban areas full of people unwilling to work, rather than “real Americans,” but this is inaccurate. According to the National Institutes of Health, 16 percent of rural households participate in the program, compared with 13 percent of urban households.
As members of Congress take all of that under consideration, they should focus on helping Americans rather than scoring political points with specious arguments.