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The Farm Bill Is Everything That’s Wrong With Congress

Dysfunction? Check. Cynicism? Check. Bad policies that will make Americans less healthy and safe? Check.

David McNew/Getty

Farms have not really factored into the discussion of the 2018 Farm Bill. The argument surrounding the legislation, which was taken up for debate in the House earlier this week, has revolved instead around a host of other issues, like the deep cuts and “work requirements” that Speaker Paul Ryan and President Donald Trump are trying to impose on the food stamp program, and draconian immigration reforms proposed by the right-wing Freedom Caucus. Left unaddressed is the bulk of the bill itself, which is not only the country’s most important food and agriculture bill, but has increasingly become a battleground for the social safety net, health care, and the environment.

The Farm Bill, which is renewed every five years (if things go right) is maddeningly complex and nearly impossible to understand, even for experts. When Marion Nestle, one of the foremost food policy thinkers in the country, began to prep a university class on the bill a few years ago, she was overcome by its intricacies. “From the minute I started preparing the course,” she wrote in Politico, “I could see that the Farm Bill was going to be too big, bloated, and sprawling for any one human mind to absorb, certainly not mine.” It is a symbol of everything that’s wrong with Congress, revealing how life-sustaining policies can be taken hostage by a handful of parochial lawmakers; how incredibly difficult it is to make even minor changes that would actually help consumers and small businesses; and how intractable the divide on Capitol Hill has become, particularly between urban and rural legislators.

And these tensions have only become more strained under Trump, resulting in efforts to stuff the legislation with items that can’t get passed elsewhere and amplifying the aspects of the bill that are having a demonstrably deleterious effect on policy.

The Farm Bill was initially conceived as a response to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, an effort to provide fair prices for both consumers and farmers, access to quality food, and protection for natural resources. It wasn’t until 1965 when the funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps) and efforts to regulate and support commodity prices were combined into a single omnibus bill—this was because neither was able to pass on its own, a situation that has grown only more dire under this polarized Congress.  

While research has shown that rural communities benefit from SNAP at significant rates, the merging of these two programs has often been understood as a way of bridging the schism between rural and urban congressional districts. As Nestle wrote in 2016, it was also a marriage that “neither Big Agriculture nor advocates for the poor can afford to see changed.”

This dynamic has only become more central to the Farm Bill in recent years, thanks to the 2008 recession and rising income inequality, which have caused the number of SNAP recipients to spike. Food stamps now make up about 80 percent of the Farm Bill’s funding. But trade policy has also shaped the legislation. Following the passage of NAFTA in 1994, the bill was altered to push farmers to produce crops they can export. Coupled with an economy that was rewarding concentration in the industry, this led to the ascendance of mega-corporations and factory farms.

“The farm bill and trade policies—but especially NAFTA—are geared around the idea that farmers should get big or get out and depend on export markets to make their ends meet,” Karen Hansen-Kuhn, the director of trade and global governance at the progressive Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, told NPR last year. “That undermines farmers who are trying to produce for a smaller scale, who are trying to produce more sustainably.” One result is an American market flooded in cheap, highly unhealthy corn products.

These factors, along with polarization, have combined to create a gridlock. In 2012, the passage of the Farm Bill was delayed for two years while Republicans demanded steep cuts to SNAP—they eventually got them in 2014, when an omnibus bill with nearly $9 billion in food stamp cuts was signed into law by President Obama. Now that they control Congress, Republicans are once again trying to use the Farm Bill as a stealth welfare reform bill—and if the Freedom Caucus get their way, a stealth immigration bill, too.

The cynical persistence of Republicans has put Democrats in a difficult position. They have essentially ceded the non-SNAP aspects of the Farm Bill to the GOP and fought to preserve its critical social assistance elements. In doing so, they have allowed politicians from both parties who represent the interests of Big Agriculture to dictate the terms of the bill’s critical agricultural and food policies. Between 2012 and 2014, when the last Farm Bill was being written, 600 companies spent nearly half-a-billion dollars lobbying Congress on the Farm Bill. While the public fight has focused on food stamps, these lobbyists have pushed for changes that provide even more benefits to factory farms and corporations.

Lobbyists for Big Agriculture have deep connections to the House and Senate’s agriculture committees, which ultimately write and approve the Farm Bill. A study from the conservative Taxpayers For Common Sense found that one in four lobbyists had previously worked for either the House or the Senate committee.

As a result, the Farm Bill largely provides subsidies to farms that don’t need them, and to farms that produce commodities, rather than food. Subsidies are meant to protect farms from market instability—and, in recent years, the impact of free trade agreements—but the Farm Bill is now dominated by six crops: corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, rice, and peanuts, which receive more than 90 percent of its subsidies. And in recent years, crop insurance has become yet another subsidy for corporate farms. One study found that large farms boosted their incomes by $13 billion because of redundancies within the 2014 bill.

These efforts are aided by the complexity of the bill itself, which resembles a hall of mirrors as much as it does a piece of legislation. Because it is an omnibus bill and because it is considered every five years (meaning that the bill often refers back to previous iterations), it is even more difficult to comprehend than Congress’s other arcane omnibus bills. Hundreds of programs are covered in the legislation, many of which are good but severely underfunded, such as a food assistance program for women, infants, and children, and the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program. But its very complexity is the biggest hurdle to making meaningful changes to it.

It is possible to imagine a different Farm Bill, one that adequately covers food stamps, but also pushes programs that provide aid to small- and medium-sized farms, increases access to locally grown food, and promotes environmental stability. This type of bill, a version of which is being pushed by Oregon Representaive Earl Blumenauer, would largely align with the Democrats’ “Better Deal” push against corporate concentration and environmental degradation. But, in the fight to protect SNAP benefits, Democratic leadership has pushed such efforts to the side.

That’s disappointing, but it’s also understandable. Reform is such an enormous and daunting task that it seems impossible. But that’s because the Farm Bill’s dysfunction is a reflection of Congress itself.