If anything good has come from Congress's refusal to approve a new farm bill last month, it's this: There's now serious talk of separating agriculture subsidies from the food-stamp program.
By marrying the two programs in the late 1970s, Congress all but guaranteed that rural, and largely Republican, legislators would back food-stamp funding while urban, and largely Democratic, lawmakers went along with farm subsidies.
That alliance is fraying. In June, the Senate approved a five-year $500 billion farm bill that included $4 billion in cuts to food-stamp spending during the next decade. The House version called for $20.5 billion in reduced food-stamp spending during the same period. Some conservative Republicans wanted bigger cuts; some Democrats wanted smaller ones; and the House bill was defeated.
House Republicans, the leading proponents of a split, now say a separation would let Congress deal with each program on its own, perhaps avoiding the kind of impasse that doomed this year's bill.
More important, a separation would allow Congress a chance to do what it should have done long ago: Roll the food-stamp program into the broader social safety net while ending subsidies for farming, a prosperous industry that doesn’t need government handouts. The Agriculture Department is forecasting farm net income to be $128 billion this year, the highest in inflation-adjusted terms in 40 years.
Yet, each iteration of the farm bill, which normally is renewed every five years, has become more encrusted with price floors, insurance subsidies and cash handouts. Such subsidies sustain inefficient enterprises and encourage overproduction, leading farmers to engage in environmentally damaging practices, from cultivating sensitive wetlands to drawing down water tables to using fertilizer and pesticides in excess. Plus, why is farming worthy of this kind of corporate welfare while other industries have to make do without?
Of course, it's not exactly hard to see why some Republicans don't want to do anything about these handouts. Take Congressman Marlin Stutzman, a Republican from Indiana who farms corn and soybeans, and is one of the leading advocates of a farm bill that excludes food stamps. Since 1995, he and his family received almost $1 million in agriculture program payments.
Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, told Bloomberg News last month that a stand-alone farm bill would gain support from Republicans. As for the food-stamp program -- whose budget for fiscal 2014 is $79 billion -- Goodlatte said $20.5 billion in cuts isn't enough. Republicans also want a work requirement for able-bodied adults. (Most food-stamp recipients are elderly, disabled or children).
Conservatives also complain about the increase in food-stamp enrollment, to more than 47 million from 28 million in
2008. The rise shouldn't be all that surprising in light of heightened unemployment in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Although unemployment has declined, large numbers of new jobs are part-time or in low-wage fields that leave many people within 130 percent of the poverty level, the usual threshold for food-stamp eligibility. The Obama administration also temporarily eased some of the qualifications for the program under the 2009 stimulus plan. And for good reason: Money allocated to food stamps has one of the greatest multiplier effects among government spending initiatives. The stimulus, though, is running out and spending will decline.
As for what to do with the food-stamp program, it probably belongs in the Department of Health and Human Services with other safety-net programs rather than in the Agriculture Department. It might also help blunt criticism if the government extended existing restrictions on food-stamp purchases of alcohol and tobacco to junk food and soft drinks. Such limitations already apply to the related federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
One of the more intriguing ideas for food stamps comes from Charles Lane, an editorial writer at the Washington Post. He suggests ending food stamps and using the money to supplement existing aid programs and the earned income tax credit. Since the credit is a supplement to workers' pay, that answers a Republican concern. And Democrats might get on board as long as the safety net isn't shredded. Could this be the basis for a new alliance?
(James Greiff is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)