After more than two years of partisan squabbling, Congress passed a five-year farm bill that costs people $100 billion a year. In the House, 89 Democrats joined 162 GOP members to pass the bill that then received a 68-32 vote in the Senate with 9 Democrats opposing the bill. It’s a bipartisan law that takes from the poor and gives to the rich and the first time that Democrats even considered cutting the food-stamp program.
The $8.6 billion cut in food stamps promotes greater hunger in what citizens like to consider the world’s richest country. The bill also promotes a diet of processed food—or food substitutes—with high levels of sugar, fat, and salt leading to serious health problems. The cut comes on top of the $11 billion lost with the expiration of stimulus funding, the first $5 million at the end of October 2013. Cuts were determined by home-heating assistance. Households must receive at least $20 per year before they automatically qualify for food stamps instead of the $1 threshold now in some states.
Last November, people lost almost $30 dollars a month from benefits; now they lose another $90. Even Walmart noticed the effects of lost funding for food stamps and predicted that the last quarter of 2013 will not meet its sales projections. As studies show and conservatives refuse to believe, each SNAP recipient dollar adds an estimated $1.70 to the economy. Food stamps create jobs from farmer to truck driver to shelf stocker and beyond. The working poor, many of whom work for Walmart, are now many of the people who rely on help to keep them from hunger.
Conservatives always say that they want cuts to make up for programs such as food stamps, but a proposal to cap (not eliminate) the profits of the ten largest farm insurance providers to free up funds to eliminate the cuts to the SNAP program was defeated 2 to 1 in the Senate. Insurance companies pocket profits taken from taxpayers’ risks.
Past changes that kept President Obama from signing a farm bill stayed in the bill that the president now has signed. Instead of a $50,000 annual limit on the primary payments (or double that for married couples), Congress approved a $125,000 limit (again, doubled for married couples). They also decided not to adopt the House and Senate-passed provisions to close the loopholes that currently allow large, wealthy farms to collect many multiples of the nominal payment limit.
The $5 billion in direct payments for commodities, payments whether farmers grow anything or not, was largely eliminated, but the new insurance “reforms” are largely a bait-and-switch effort that continues giveaways to agribusiness and wealthy investors. A few limited reforms to help both organic and diversified farm operations didn’t stop the crop insurance program from using taxpayer money to protect profits of large farms that produce commodity crops while doing little to protect small integrated farmers who actually grow food. The program pays $1.4 billion annually to 18 companies to sell policies to farmers and then pays 62 percent of the farmers’ premiums. A coup for these companies is the provision that the Agriculture Department cannot renegotiate lesser payments during the five-year term of the bill. Previous negotiations have saved billions in dollars in government savings.
The bill also removes an income cap for receiving crop insurance; thus large farming operations can win more subsidies by claiming additional people are actively engaged in farming. Some of these people are members of Congress who no longer have to disclose the crop insurance money they get from voting for this bill.
Dow succeeded in adding a provision to reverse the prohibition of sulfuryl fluoride despite EPA’s 2011 proposal to phase out its use as a food fumigant. Massive tax subsidies go to corporate agribusiness and wealthy investors, again promoting unhealthy food, genetically engineered crops, confined animal feeding operations, and monoculture farming. Seed and pesticide corporations such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow will benefit from the farm bill’s provisions. The result includes ongoing vulnerability to floods and droughts, aquatic “dead zones,” and fouled drinking water caused by fertilizer runoff from fields, and more. Conservation programs to mitigate these problems were slashed by $6.1 billion, the first decrease since Congress started funding these programs in 1985.
Federal nutrition programs stay the same except for the Pulse Health Pilot Program which adds plant-based protein sources to school meals. That means the National Lunch Program, food stamps, and WIC will continue to push junk foods like processed meat and cheese that fuel epidemics of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
More money went to higher rice and peanut subsidies for Southern farmers. People who need the least help get more “aid” through $5 billion in taxpayer funds for livestock farmers when their animals die during natural disasters, another subsidy for the meat and dairy industry.
The almost-1000 pages of the bill show the favors that legislators provide to their constituents—sugar producers, catfish farmers, etc. William Frenzel, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota and a budget analyst at the Brookings Institution, said, “The agriculture industry simply does not need all of these supports.” He described the farm bill as “bad budget and agriculture policy.” Even current GOP members of Congress were disgusted. “It seems that catfish is one bottom feeder with friends in high places,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said.
The farm bill has a few advantages: $100 million to help bring healthy food to underserved communities; initiatives to encourage purchases of fruits and vegetables by SNAP consumers at retail outlets, including farmers’ markets and food hubs; support for food banks; allowing SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase a Community Supported Agriculture share; and a pilot program to support bringing local food into schools. Good programs cut last year were restored: Beginning and Disadvantaged farmers, farmers markets, community food projects, support for local food systems, etc. These, however, are just a few million dollars in an annual $100 billion bill. Conservation requirements were also relinked to the receipt of crop insurance subsidies.
Notable is the rejection of the “King amendment” that would have prevented hundreds of state laws defending food safety, farm workers, animals, and the environment. Also gone is the amendment in the last farm bill from Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) that protected companies like Monsanto that produce GMOs from being sued.
The farm bill is an excellent example of “cognitive dissonance” that results in Selective Deficit Disorder. Republicans said that they were decreasing the deficit by reducing funding for the food-stamp program, but they ignored the deficit when they handed over billions of dollars to corporate special interests. This is not a continuing phenomenon in politics: ten states made draconian cuts to retiree benefits, pleading poverty, but in a report, “Good Jobs First,” in the same states, “the total annual cost of corporate subsidies, tax breaks and loopholes exceeds the total current annual pension costs.”
The five-year farm bill is largely a win-lose situation: the wealthy and corporations win, and the poor lose. Basically the law cuts food stamps, gives wealthy farmers more money, and hides the way that farmers pollute the ground.The one great advantage is that the Tea Party opposed it. Republicans ignoring the extremists may not be a trend, but it is happening now.