Farm Bill's Roots in Old Laws Should Be Sustained

Jerry Hagstrom
National Journal

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., is putting in a stellar performance as he tries to get a farm bill through Congress under the most difficult circumstances, but he has come up with two ideas that most farm and nutrition groups are opposing—with good reason.

The first idea is to replace the permanent agricultural laws from 1938 and 1949 with the commodity title of a new farm bill. The second is allowing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps, to continue as an appropriated entitlement rather than be formally reauthorized.

It's easy to see why both these ideas would appeal to the weary Lucas. Passing farm bills has gotten harder, and it would be much easier for future chairmen of the House Agriculture Committee not to have to face the expiration of the commodity programs. Rice and peanut growers, who would get high target prices to trigger subsidy payments under the House proposal, and sugar growers, who would not have to fight with industrial sugar users every five years over their program, would definitely benefit.

It would also be easier to get a conference report on the farm bill through the House this year if it covered only farm programs popular in rural Republican-dominated districts (although how tea party members of the House and conservative think tanks would react to not cutting SNAP at all remains to be seen).

But if permanent law were updated and SNAP were allowed to languish, the rest of agriculture, consumers, and the hungry would all suffer in the long run.

Farm policymakers and lobbyists have made careers out of understanding convoluted permanent agricultural laws for decades, but as a larger public has become interested in the farm bill this year, confusion has abounded about what is permanent and what is not. Here is a guide to that history.

Permanent agricultural law goes back to 1933, shortly after Franklin Roosevelt's election as president, when Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act, to try to deal with the surplus of commodities and other aspects of the Great Depression in rural America. The AAA included production controls that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1936. That Court's decision, and recognition that soil erosion had created the Dust Bowl, led Congress to pass the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936.

In 1938, Congress passed a new Agricultural Adjustment Act that incorporated the sections of the 1933 law that were unaffected by the Court ruling, the 1936 conservation law, and new commodity legislation that met the Court's standards. Portions of the 1938 AAA remain law, but in 1949 Congress passed a major new law that included high, fixed-support prices that would trigger subsidy payments when market prices fell below certain levels. The goal was to achieve parity between farm and nonfarm prices and incomes.

Since then, whenever Congress has passed new farm legislation affecting commodities and dairy products, it has suspended the commodity title of the 1938 and 1949 laws for specific periods of time rather than simply amending a section of the 1938 or 1949 laws or passing new legislation and making it permanent.

Agricultural historians are silent on why Congress started replacing sections of the 1938 and 1949 laws for specific periods, but the wording of some accounts indicates that the reason was to see if the changes to the program would work—which is exactly why continuing to write five-year bills is still a better idea than making permanent new programs that benefit the producers of certain commodities.

As John Gordley, a prominent agricultural lobbyist who once worked for Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., told the American Soybean Association (one of his clients), the problem with changing permanent laws is that if farmers don't like the changes they will be difficult to change again. House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who saw the dairy program he wrote this year amended on the House floor in a way that dairy farmers don't like, said Congress should be careful about making what he sees as an expensive new program permanent with no trial period.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, most changes to farm law were piecemeal—a change in sugar policy one year, in cotton policy another—although some laws, such as the 1954 act that created the Food for Peace program, were more important. But in 1970 a comprehensive bill was passed that "brought greater stability to agricultural policies than had been seen in many years," according to a farm-bill history published by the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service.

Since the 1970s, the expiration of five-year farm bills and the need to pass a new bill have become triggers for enacting all kinds of changes and modernizations to Agriculture Department programs. That is how the USDA's Rural Utilities Service came to add Internet service to its mandate to provide electricity and telephone service to remote areas of rural America, how USDA came to provide more assistance to the fruit and vegetable industry as the importance of those foods has been recognized, and how the agency was given the authority to encourage the development of popular farmers' markets around the country and help organic farmers. Making only the commodity title of a new law permanent would mean that changing a commodity title that proved too expensive and starting innovative programs would both be very difficult.

The one exception to the short-term laws has been the Federal Crop Insurance Act, which was passed in 1980 and has been amended several times since, sometimes through farm bills. The crop-insurance law is truly a stand-alone piece of legislation, which is why lawmakers say crop insurance will continue whether the farm bill is reauthorized or not. But the crop insurance law's independent status also shows that it would be very hard to either broaden the crop-insurance program to cover more crops or restrict premium subsidies to high-income farmers without the farm bill as a vehicle.

Contrary to popular impression, SNAP does not have permanent authorization. The program was initiated by the 1964 Food Stamp Act as part of President Johnson's wave of Great Society legislation, but it was incorporated into the farm bill in 1977, and it expires with each farm bill. Food stamps are an entitlement, and appropriators have the power to continue the program simply by including money for it in the Agriculture appropriations bill. Lucas has suggested that liberals might prefer to allow food stamps to continue as an appropriated entitlement, but antihunger activists say this is dangerous.

Although some conservatives have suggested using the appropriations process to reduce SNAP spending, Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who was administrator of the food-stamp program in the 1970s, said the chances of passing an Agriculture appropriations bill without SNAP are "zero." It would be difficult to use the appropriations process to tighten up eligibility requirements or reduce benefits, Greenstein said, simply because writing the legislation would be so hard and it would be a case of writing authorizing legislation on an appropriations bill.

The bigger danger, Greenstein said, is that congressional willingness to leave SNAP without authorization would make legislators more willing to cut SNAP in a budget deal. One antihunger activist noted that Republicans have been unwilling to propose cuts to Social Security or Medicare out of fear of offending middle-class voters, but they are more willing to cut food stamps or Medicaid, which go to people who are less likely to vote for them.

The House passed the budget proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would turn food stamps into a capped payment to the states. The Ryan budget's SNAP provision would save $134 billion over 10 years, but one GOP aide said that figure was "plucked from nowhere" with no policy basis to make Ryan's budget work.

Child-nutrition programs, including the Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children and school-meals programs, are authorized under different laws, but Ed Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center, said that a lack of authorization for SNAP could create an atmosphere in which Congress also begins to think about block-granting child-nutrition programs.

"It is not very difficult to imagine some enterprising member of Congress then suggesting: Why not combine all child-nutrition programs with SNAP and have these programs compete with each other for the limited funds that would remain available?" Cooney said. "Why not save money by block-granting school lunch? It is important to remember that one major political party had a school-lunch block-grant proposal as part of its 2012 presidential platform, and that the House actually passed legislation block-granting SNAP this year."

Farm groups, nutrition advocates, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Peterson, and President Obama all strongly oppose either changing permanent law or leaving SNAP without authorization. But as Congress continues the difficult task of trying to write a farm bill this year, temptations will arise to do anything to get it across the finish line.

It's important to remember that these are bad ideas even if they come from Lucas, who has otherwise distinguished himself.