Farm bill yields mixed bag of reform
It’s easy to have conflicting views about the massive farm bill passed by the House Wednesday and likely to win a Senate approval this week.
We are pleased the bill that authorizes $956 billion in spending over 10 years finally eliminates direct cash payments to farmers — including many large agricultural corporations and absentee landowners. That is estimated to save U.S. taxpayers $40 billion over the next decade.
However, the bill adds back in $27.2 billion for enhanced crop insurance programs and a new program to insure against failing crop prices. That significantly diminishes the reform effect.
Also, as noted by groups representing small farmers, wealthy farmers will be the beneficiaries of much of the taxpayers’ largesse. People making up to $900,000 a year in adjusted gross income can qualify for payments, according to The Washington Post. And the rules that are supposed to make the payments only apply to those actively engaged in farming — as opposed to absentee owners living in places like New York City — are weak and easily circumvented.
So, the part of the bill aimed at reforming the long-disputed programs for paying farmers is definitely a mixed bag. An important step was taken by ending the old, direct-payments program, but it was diluted by the enhanced crop insurance programs.
We, like many people across the West, are pleased to see the farm bill restored $425 million in funding for the Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes program, or PILT, which reimburses counties for federal lands within their borders, for which they cannot collect property taxes.
But the reinstated funding, replacing the PILT money that was cut out of the large omnibus budget bill passed by Congress earlier this year, is only for a single year. That means Western members of Congress from both parties will have to fight the same battle again next year to continue the funding.
While the PILT money was restored, $8.5 billion was cut from the federal food stamp program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. That’s far less than the $39 billion in cuts Republicans in the House originally sought. And even Democrats recognized that some reduction in the program was warranted to ensure states weren’t manipulating household budget data to make people eligible who were not. Democrats originally sought $4 billion in cuts to SNAP.
Even so, it’s hard to argue that PILT payments for counties in the West or crop insurance for large farms are more important than food assistance for poor families.
Depending on which reports one believes, the farm bill will save the U.S. Treasury somewhere between $16 billion and $23 billion over the next decade. That’s not chump change, and we’re glad Congress finally passed a farm bill after two years of bickering. But there’s no bumper crop of reform in this bill.