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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Farm Bill exposes divisions in Congress

The Columbian
Published: March 21, 2023, 6:03am

As members of Congress begin negotiations over this year’s Farm Bill, the benefits — and the difficulties — of a divided legislature come to the forefront.

As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, has wisely sought input from constituents. Much of Washington’s 3rd Congressional District is agricultural land, and the bill will impact farmers and consumers alike. That means all of us, which is understandable for legislation expected to spend roughly $1.4 trillion over the next five years.

“I’m committed to making the voices of Southwest Washington heard in the upcoming Farm Bill,” Perez said following a recent meeting with farmers and rural residents in Thurston and Lewis counties. “These leaders feed and fuel Southwest Washington and the entire country, and I look forward to continuing our partnership in the months and years to come.”

The current farm bill expires in September, setting up what likely will be the biggest congressional battle this side of the debt limit ceiling. That battle will expose divisions between and within the political parties. As The Hill explains: “The House and Senate agriculture committees will hold a series of hearings akin to a large and acrimonious family Thanksgiving — heated debates with everyone united in the desire to fill their plates.”

Central to the acrimony will be the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — colloquially known as food stamps. Benefits that were expanded in response to the COVID-19 pandemic expired last month, but more than $100 billion in annual spending will be up for debate. SNAP accounts for a majority of Farm Bill spending.

Republicans have signaled a desire for cuts and work requirements for the program. Democrats will oppose benefit reductions, but a compromise likely will be necessary to forge a bill that can pass the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-led Senate.

As a lobbyist for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said: “The top-line focus is a package that can pass. Eyes on the prize.”

SNAP provides some insight into the vagaries of American politics. While it is reasonable to question why food assistance is included in an agriculture bill, the answer is that the bill must include items supported by both parties in order to pass.

It also provides some insight into the rhetoric of American politics. Critics like to claim that assistance is aimed at Democratic constituencies in urban areas. But the Food Research & Action Center reports that 16 percent of households in rural counties are SNAP recipients, as opposed to 13 percent in metropolitan counties.

Climate issues also will be at the center of Farm Bill negotiations. Republicans are eager to oppose any climate measures in the legislation and instead will look to repurpose funding included in the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed last year with only Democratic support when that party controlled both chambers.

Ideally, larger discussions about American agriculture and the impact of federal intervention would take place. Decades of policy decisions have hampered small farms and enhanced the rise of big agriculture, with corporate structures squeezing out the nostalgic notion of a family farm.

As regional farm advocate Joe Maxwell told The Hill: “The farm bill is a bunch of arguments siloed by title and subcommittee assignments. No one looks at how where farm programs have gotten us.”

Indeed, that should be looked at. But hoping for an effective Farm Bill this year seems daunting enough.