Congress, assuring a government shutdown if it fails to pass appropriations bills before the new fiscal year starts Tuesday, also is missing its deadline to set long-term agriculture policy.
The Senate and House have yet to meet to work out differences in their very different approaches on a host of critical issues in the expiring five-year farm bill, last approved in 2008.
The Senate in June passed a comprehensive bill that would cut $4.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – the formal name for food stamps – over 10 years. (The program serves more than 47 million people at a cost of almost $80 billion a year now.) The Senate leadership named conferees to negotiate with House members before the August recess.
By contrast, the House passed a farm bill in July but left out the nutrition elements for later consideration. Then it took its summer recess before returning to vote in mid-September on a $40 billion, 10-year cut in SNAP, which Democrats called a deal breaker. The House leadership has yet to name conferees.
There’s a lot to dislike in both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, prompting some to suggest the impasse is better than an agreement.
“The best option before Congress is a new extension of the 2008 farm bill,” the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, wrote in its blog recently. “The existing farm bills passed by the House and Senate are flawed, so a compromise with these bills would only lead to bad policy for the American people.”
Heritage is critical of both the Senate’s and House’s provisions for new subsidy programs, which it says “go well beyond providing a safety net for farmers by protecting them from virtually all risk.” It says cost assumptions for the programs are based on commodity prices staying near record highs. If prices come down to their long-term averages, the think tank warns, the costs to taxpayers would be “astronomical.” Those are legitimate concerns.
Activists opposed to increased reliance on taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance, as direct payments are phased out, have been rallying on Capitol Hill. They point out that calling the money crop insurance doesn’t mean it’s not a subsidy.
While some provisions of the bills could benefit from major revisions by a House-Senate conference committee, not acting at all simply leads to uncertainty. It’s time for this Congress to leave politics aside and get on with setting food and nutrition policy.