Congress Can Take an Important Step in 2016 to Address the ‘Food Stamp’ Bill

COMMENTARY Welfare

Congress Can Take an Important Step in 2016 to Address the ‘Food Stamp’ Bill

Jan 6th, 2016 2 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Daren Bakst

Research Fellow in Agricultural Policy

Bakst studies and writes about agricultural and environmental policy and property rights, among other issues.

The next farm bill won’t be considered until at least 2018. However, Congress can take what should be non-controversial action now that sets up the possibility for real reform in the future: Separate agricultural programs from the food stamp program.

Food stamps account for about 80 percent of the farm bill costs, making “food stamp bill” a more accurate title than the “farm bill.”

From a policy perspective, separation should be noncontroversial, and it has been widely supported. Unfortunately, food stamps and agricultural programs have been combined for political reasons in order to simply  get “something” passed.

Proponents of the status quo for food stamps and agricultural programs get what they want by combining the programs together. Legislators who would otherwise seek reform stay quiet in order to maintain the status quo of their favored program.

This needs to change so that Congress can thoughtfully consider agricultural policy as well as the food stamp program.

Agricultural policy deserves far greater attention from legislators, particularly from those who aren’t on the agriculture committees. Agriculture policy is too important for legislators to wait until the next farm bill to consider what changes need to be made to existing farm policy.

Fortunately, separation provides legislators a chance to adopt a meaningful reform this year without even having to touch the farm programs themselves.

The House separated the programs in 2013 when it passed a separate agriculture-only bill and a food stamp bill. Even when the House combined the programs back together in one bill for conference (to work out differences with the Senate farm bill), it authorized agricultural programs for five years and food stamps for three years. This different authorization schedule would have helped to ensure that the programs be considered separately in the future.

Congress should finish what the House properly tried to do in the 113th Congress. The 2014 farm bill was projected to cost nearly a trillion dollars over 10 years; that kind of money deserves proper oversight.

Status quo proponents will likely claim that separation will make it more difficult to get the programs passed. This strange and amusing argument is a tacit admission that the programs would never get support if they were considered on their own merits. What does that say about the programs?

If agricultural policy is important, why in the world should the central piece of agricultural policy legislation (i.e., the farm bill) bury farm programs in a food stamp bill? On the same lines, if food stamps are so important, why should this program not get the full attention of Congress when it is to be reauthorized?

The entire purpose of reauthorizing programs is for Congress to review existing policy and possibly change policies that may not be working (or expand upon policies that are working).

By combining the programs, the value of reauthorization is reduced because an open and thoughtful process to reassess existing policy is mostly nonexistent. Americans deserve much better.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal