Time for Splitting the Farm Bill?

The Chicago Tribune this morning had an excellent editorial about the House of Representatives’ defeat of the 2013 Farm Bill last Thursday. (See Tony Traina’s post in OpenMarket on that defeat.) The editorial pointed to the crux of the problem with bloated farm bills — the fact that agricultural support programs and nutrition and food stamp programs are in the same bill, which leads to an unholy alliance of urban and rural policy makers. The Tribune urged that the current legislation be thrown out in favor of splitting the bill:

Here’s an opportunity for Congress to do something revolutionary: Break up the farm bill. Debate and vote on food stamp policy and farm policy as entirely separate matters.

Although Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) had offered an amendment to do just that, it didn’t make it on the House floor. For such an approach to succeed, a lot of advance work would need to be done. Farmers, used to horse-trading with their rural colleagues on their special farm programs and with their city counterparts on food stamps, aren’t likely to give up that advantage, which almost always is touted as a fine example of bipartisanship.

For years, most major newspapers have called for reining in the farm subsidy and support programs that go mainly to the largest farms and the richest farmers. Few, however, have called for making even small cuts on the food and nutrition side.

But those days could come to an end, as many of those new to Congress think that more should be done to cut back on farm subsidy programs and on the rapidly escalating costs of the food stamp program. Even some commentators are shocked at the skyrocketing costs of the food stamp program as eligibility has expanded. As the Tribune noted:

Food stamp spending has soared over the past decade, partly because of the recession but also because rule changes have made it easier to qualify for aid.

The federal government provides a justifiable safety net to prevent hunger. But the food-stamp program’s expansion to $74.6 billion in 2012 from $18.3 billion a decade ago is alarming.

Maybe the 195-234 defeat of the Farm Bill will be a wake-up call for real reform that would deal with agricultural issues and food and nutrition issues separately and on their own merits.