Farm bill grows food stamp rolls

Dan Holler Communications Director, Heritage Action

If you’ve been listening to the radio in Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina or Oklahoma lately, you may have heard a pig squeal in your ear while a smooth-talking narrator explained, “You can put a tuxedo on a pig and call it Steve … but it’s still a pig.”

For most folks outside of Washington, that is self-evident. But many of the politicians in Washington don’t see it that way. For decades, Republicans and Democrats alike have insisted upon calling a bill that deals with commodities, conservation, trade, rural development, research, energy, forestry and nutrition a “farm bill.”

You could argue that most of those policy areas relate to farming, so Steve really is Steve. The problem is, roughly 80 percent of all the spending in the “farm bill” goes toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps.

It’s a point even liberal lawmakers go to great pains to de-emphasize. Just take Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. Last week, she explained, “Farmers need the certainty of a five-year bill.” She added that it “is very, very important to us” that, for the first time, funding in the commodity title and conservation title will be about equal.

Perhaps this was nothing more than typical political pandering — she was meeting with local conservation and agriculture leaders, after all — but that is the point. Stabenow and others aren’t holding meetings to tout locking in food stamp funding at levels fueled by the Obama stimulus (more on that below); instead, they are talking about agriculture.

It goes beyond the spending breakdown, though. Even by Washington standards, we’re talking about real money. Over 10 years, the food stamp spending in the House and Senate “farm bills” would be roughly three-quarters of a trillion dollars.

In 2012, taxpayers spent nearly $80 billion on food stamps. This year, the food stamp rolls will grow by another 1 million, even as the economy continues to “recover.” There were 30 million fewer people receiving food stamps in 2001.

The dramatic rise in food stamp usage and the associated cost to taxpayers will no doubt have significant political implications. A couple days ago, The Capital (Annapolis, MD) explained:

“The drastic expansion of eligibility goes back at least to 1996, when President Bill Clinton’s welfare system overhaul allowed states to ease income and asset standards for participants. A 2002 farm bill, supported by President George W. Bush, loosened eligibility rules. A 2008 farm bill, passed over Bush’s veto, loosened them some more. Expansion of SNAP figured heavily in President Barack Obama’s post-recession stimulus program, and the Obama administration encouraged states to take advantage of their power to waive previous requirements.”

The paper reports that even in deep-blue Maryland, a state that Obama won by 26 points last November, “elected officials have some reason to worry about spreading a culture of dependence.”

Yet, lawmakers from deep-red states seem intent on locking in another five years of exorbitant and reckless food stamp spending. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) has said he is “proud” of his bill. Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS), the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has called the Senate bill a “job creator.”

Why are self-styled conservatives doing this? The answer is as simple as it is cynical. Cochran recently explained that “purely from a political perspective” the inclusion of food stamps “helps get the farm bill passed.”

Cochran’s logic is not unique, but it is time to put this type of thinking out to pasture. The inclusion of massive food stamp spending is one reason a five-year “farm bill” was derailed last year, which therefore begs the question: Could $80 billion in food stamp spending be reauthorized if farm subsidies weren’t?

Dan Holler is the communications director for Heritage Action.