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House Republicans Using the Farm Bill to Attack Hungry Americans

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The Farm Bill is the federal blueprint for our food system. Congress is one year late in reauthorizing the legislation, largely due to its polarization and dysfunction.

How the Farm Bill will be resolved is anyone's guess after the recent meltdown in the House. On June 29, the Farm Bill, with an overall cut of $40 billion in spending over 10 years, went down to defeat (195-234) in the House due to opposition among Democrats to cuts ($20 billion) in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Then the House leadership passed a Farm Bill without including SNAP.

A stand-alone SNAP bill won't come up for a vote in the House, if at all, until Congress returns in September (with a Sept. 30 deadline looming for reauthorization). The Senate is ready to go to a joint conference committee right now to try to craft a compromise, but the House is balking. Another three-month or even a year's extension is possible.

The Farm and Food Bill is among the most comprehensive and complex pieces of federal legislation. It provides funding for farmers and rural development. It feeds hungry Americans. It is the single largest source of federal funding for conservation, protecting soil and water. It helps determine what foods are grown and how they are grown. It impacts world food prices and provides overseas hunger relief.

The breakdown in the House begins with the Tea Party members, who are incensed about the amount of money being spent to feed hungry Americans. They are "shocked" that as unemployment remains high, the cost of providing food stamps (SNAP) to low-income Americans has continued to rise. SNAP now accounts for more than 70% of the cost of the Farm Bill.

Progressives believe the solution to hunger is to repair the economy and create living-wage jobs, while providing a strong safety net/SNAP for those who need it. The Great Recession of 2007 allegedly ended 3 years ago, but unemployment remains at very high levels. Most new jobs pay only poverty-level wages, making many workers eligible for SNAP. Half of SNAP households, in fact, have income from wages.

Instead of trying to put Americans back to work, the House Republican leadership's response to rising hunger is to try to slash SNAP.

Farm Bill Reauthorization in 2012

Last year, Congress failed to reach agreement on the five-year reauthorization of the Farm Bill. It initially extended the Farm Bill for three months. Then everyone got mad when the Farm Bill was lumped into the New Year's negotiations over the fiscal cliff, which suddenly thrust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R - Kentucky) into the negotiations. He flipped the farm bill over to help southern commodity farmers (rice, cotton, peanuts). The one-year extension avoided any cuts to SNAP, but included none of the cost-saving crop subsidy and insurance reforms of the Senate Farm Bill. It failed to provide funding for dozens of critical reform programs for smaller farms and community agriculture (beginning and disadvantaged farmers, organics, urban ag, etc.) that had been added into the last extension.

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Sequestration and fiscal-debt fights still loom large over the Farm Bill. SNAP was actually exempted from sequestration as a poison pill to "force" Republicans to come to an agreement--but that strategy didn't work. Savings from the Farm Bill will be part of any final fiscal-cliff deal.

Senate Action in 2013

In early June, the full Senate, with strong bi-partisan support (66-27), passed its version of the Farm Bill, which was similar to what it had approved last year, with a cut in overall spending of $24 billion. Most Farm Bill advocates, other than anti-hunger groups, would be satisfied if the Senate version became law. But for those pushing for sweeping changes to our food system, the Senate largely preserves the status quo, with only some incremental reforms.

The status quo enriches agribusiness and wealthy investors. It provides less than $600 directly to the average family farmer. It promotes an unhealthy food diet for all Americans by subsidizing commodities that promote the production of overly processed foods high in sugar (corn syrup) and fats (soy). It costs tens of billions of dollars to deal with resulting health problems, such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. The status quo supports massive factory farms that grow only one crop, which is bad for the soil and leads to high levels of water pollution from fertilizers, pesticides and concentrated animal waste. It contributes to world hunger.

The Senate bill cuts $4 billion over 10 years by reducing SNAP benefits for public housing residents (by eliminating a provision for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Nor does it prevent a $30 a month cut in SNAP benefits that will take effect this November as a result of a prior agreement to free up funds to pay for state fiscal relief and child nutrition.

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The Senate bill does include some worthwhile reforms. It restores funding for most of the programs that were added five years ago but dropped from the extension. The Senate version incentivizes the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants at farmers markets and does help several organic programs.

In its bill, however, the Senate failed to include Farm to School provisions (included in the House bill) for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) foods, and failed to increase funding for the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program. In addition, cuts in conservation funding made environmental groups unhappy, and livestock farmers were upset by the omission of rules for fairer competition.

The Senate bill does end direct subsidies for commodities, which are at record prices, and imposes a cap on commodities payments to individual farms. At the same time, it transfers funds into expanded crop insurance programs, including two new programs, for Agricultural Risk Coverage and Adverse Market Payments, which will be twice the size of the old commodities program. These programs include changes that help diversified farms, and include a requirement for participation in conservation programs. Groups like the Environmental Working Group, however, contend that the programs still provide for a robust subsidy to agribusiness and the insurance industry. An amendment by Senator Gillibrand to cap the profits of the ten largest farm insurance companies in order to pay for the cuts in SNAP was handily defeated in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The bill cuts nearly $6 billion over ten years from conservation programs, of which a disproportionate amount hits the Conservation Stewardship Program. The cuts fail to improve, and potentially set back, CSP policy, and also fail to reform the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

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President of Green Education and Legal Fund Inc. Executive Director of Hunger Action Network. Author of Madame President: The Unauthorized Biography of the First Green Party President. Co

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