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Joel Berg Headshot

The Farm Bill's Auspicious Death

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When the House of Representatives recently killed the Farm Bill, it put a final nail in the coffin of the old-school coalitions that passed such bills for decades. Good riddance.

The measure defeated by the House was dreadful for farmers, taxpayers, and consumers -- and even worse for hungry Americans. It would have made only cosmetic changes to the government's corporate agribusiness subsidies and would have actually spent billions more on payments to the largest farming operations that least need the help. It would have continued to give far more support to corn syrup than to fruits and vegetables. Congressional members who own farms would still have been able to reap millions in personal payments. Since it would have continued to place small farmers worldwide at a competitive disadvantage, the bill would have fostered more international hunger.

The same G.O.P. House bill would also have slashed $20 billion from the domestic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), removing millions of struggling Americans from the rolls. Despite the bill's orgy of corporate welfare, House leaders claimed -- with straight faces -- that the SNAP reductions were vital to limit the deficit and "reduce dependency."

The Senate Democratic bill was only slightly less odious. While it would have made agriculture subsidy reforms that were marginally more meaningful than the House version, it would have cut SNAP by $4 billion, reducing benefits for half a million families. While Senate leaders disingenuously claimed that their SNAP reductions were merely technical corrections, rather than a slash in benefits to impoverished families, they conveniently ignored the fact that their own cuts were almost four times greater than the SNAP reductions that were previously proposed by President George W. Bush -- and that they themselves had previously decried.

It is no wonder that neither the Senate nor the House versions of the bill could garner the necessary support to become law. The historic urban/rural farm bill coalition -- dating back to the Great Depression -- finally perished. This is one death we should be celebrating.

In the first few decades of its existence, the coalition served a useful purpose. True family farmers were aided by the bill, and in exchange, low-income Americans received increasing food aid. But over time, pushed by campaign donations, Congress gave increasingly large portions of assistance to massive agricultural enterprises that fouled the environment and harmed public health, and less of it to small family farmers. Between 1990 and today, according the Center for Responsive Politics, corporate agriculture interests donated $624 million to federal campaigns.

Still, anti-hunger advocacy organizations remained tied at the hip to the interests of massive agribusiness. We had an implicit deal: the corporations, most of which were run by conservatives, would hold their noses about all the funding going to poor people; the anti-hunger groups, usually headed by progressives, would continue to acquiesce to ever-larger corporate welfare. As long as there was enough money for both sides, the deals rolled on.

Yet with each passing year, as concerns over both public health and deficits increased, the pork-laden farm bills became harder to defend as policy and more difficult to sustain politically. When there was no longer enough money for both sides, each camp of the coalition started whispering to Congress behind closed doors that cuts should come from the others, not from them. At the same time, Congress was losing its willingness to accept, without serious amendment, massive pieces of costly legislation written by a handful of agriculture committee members, who were mostly white men from a few states and districts (and who were the largest recipients of the agriculture campaign donations).

Even though some House Republicans voted against the most recent farm bill because it cut too little from SNAP, the bill's defeat is nevertheless a victory for the nation, forcing a serious national reassessment of the measure and its priorities. The new approach just proposed by House leadership -- splitting agribusiness programs and SNAP benefits into two separate bills in order to enact even larger nutrition cuts -- would only take us further backwards.

Rather, the House farm bill defeat should provide Congress and the Obama Administration the jolt they need to go truly back to the drawing board to craft an entirely different kind of measure -- a comprehensive food bill that reduces hunger, bolsters nutrition, aids family farmers, protects the environment, boosts rural economic development, strengthens food safety, and reduces unnecessary spending. And it should force anti-hunger advocates to form an entirely new coalition with all food-related activists, as well as with those corporate entities willing to advance the public good.

Recent farm bills have represented the worst of American politics. It's time to pass a food bill that represents the best.