The tortured two-year path to a bipartisan farm bill — approved last week by the House and scheduled for a Senate vote this week — produced mediocre legislation that foolishly cuts a nutrition program for the needy, rebrands commodity subsidies as crop insurance and leaves unchanged the indefensible policy of lucrative supports for Big Sugar.
Sadly, it could have been worse. The nearly $1 trillion bill, the first farm bill since 2008, notably includes a 10-year, $8 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. The reduction is double what Senate Democrats had previously approved, but less than half of the $20 billion cut supported by House Speaker John Boehner or the irresponsible $39 billion advocated by some House Republicans.
Those numbers will be of little comfort to 850,000 households (none in Florida) that will lose as much as $90 worth of food stamps each month. The cuts likely will exacerbate the recent trend of end-of-the-month rushes on charity pantries and congregate feeding sites after previous food stamp cuts took effect in November. Congress should make fighting hunger a higher priority, and lawmakers shouldn't be tone deaf to the economics of the food stamp program that produces commerce for local grocers and mom-and-pop stores serving poor communities.
Overall, the conference committee bill reduces spending by $23 billion over the next decade and correctly ends direct payments to farmers, whether or not they grow crops. The alternative, however, also is problematic. The bill enhances crop insurance to provide government payments when yields are poor. Protecting the 2 million people affected by the food stamp cut would have been a far better use for some of the expected savings.
Worse, the bill continues the absurdly favorable treatment for the sugar industry, which routinely spends millions of dollars on campaign contributions and Washington lobbyists and then taps taxpayer pockets to clean up its pollution in the Everglades. The status quo of convoluted tariffs, quotas and buybacks benefits large sugar beet and cane producers but costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars for excess crops while consumers simultaneously pay higher prices for domestically produced food. Where is the fairness in that? Lawmakers who want to get serious about cutting federal spending should start by ending sugar subsidies.
One caveat in the bill directly benefits Florida and other citrus-growing states by allocating $125 million to find a cure for citrus greening, the fruit-damaging disease affecting crops in 10 states and threatening the long-term health of Florida's $9-billion-a-year citrus industry. It's a sensible investment, the kind of compromise this bill could have used more of to better put the needs of the public ahead of the wants of special interests.