The House just voted down its $940 billion farm bill. Here’s what’s in it.

June 20, 2013

[Update: On Thursday afternoon, the House voted against the farm bill, with 195 yeas and 234 nays. A large number of Democrats opposed the cuts to food stamps, and many conservative Republicans thought the bill didn't cut enough. Here's what happens next.]

On Thursday, the House is voting on its own version of the massive farm bill that will set the course of U.S. food policy for the next half-decade. The House version is 629 pages long, costing some $939.5 billion over 10 years.

So what’s actually in it? How does it differ from the Senate version? And why is the White House threatening a veto?

The Congressional Research Service has one of the few clear breakdowns (pdf) of the bill's various provisions, at least before the flurry of amendments that are being voted on Thursday. I've redone their analysis in simplified pie-chart form:

That includes:

Food stamps and nutrition, $743.9 billion over 10 years. This is by far the biggest part of the farm bill, with the bulk taken up by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps low-income families pay for food. It's also the most controversial part of the House version.

The House bill contains a number of restrictions on eligibility and money to combat food-stamp trafficking. All told, the House bill cuts food-stamp spending more than $20.5 billion compared to what would happen if current policy was kept in place. Some Republicans want to restrict spending even further, and have offered several amendments on this front, including everything from drug-testing for recipients to creating a "food-stamp registry."

Note that the Senate bill has more funding for nutrition, reducing food-stamp payments by just $3.9 billion over 10 years compared to current policy. More on that down below. The White House has threatened to veto the House version of the farm bill over its food-stamp cuts.

Commodity programs, $40.1 billion over 10 years. This section includes a variety of programs to shield farmers against sharp fluctuations in prices, particularly corn, wheat, soybean, cotton, rice, peanut, and dairy producers.

In past years, this was an even bigger chunk of various farm bills, which often provided “direct payments” to farmers regardless of how much they actually planted or how much they would sell their crops for. This latest farm bill would cut most of these direct payments, saving about $18.6 billion over 10 years.

Those cuts are arguably the biggest policy change in both the House and Senate bill — and, as NPR's Jonathan Ahl has reported, they're contentious among farmers. Many of the savings have been channeled into other types of farm aid, including billions of dollars in disaster assistance and subsidized loans for farmers.

Crop insurance, $93 billion over 10 years. For decades, farmers have been able to buy crop insurance in case their crops fail or prices decline. The federal government currently pays about $7 billion per year to help cover the premiums. But under the new House farm bill, the government would also spend an additional $8.9 billion per year covering the deductibles that farmers have to pay before the insurance kicks in. This is supposed to help cushion the blow from the loss of direct payments.

This is another of the more contentious parts of the farm bill. Some critics have warned that this insurance program could cost far more than expected, depending on how crop prices shift. And the Environmental Working Group has argued that one-third of these subsidies go to the largest 4 percent of farm operators. Some House Republicans have offered amendments to cut the insurance program further.

Also note that the House version contains a bit more money for crop insurance than the Senate's, thanks to a number of different rules used to calculate payments. (Under the Senate bill, for instance, farmers could lose their funding for premiums if they convert wetlands to crop production; the House doesn't have that provision.)

Conservation, $56.7 billion over 10 years. This includes programs to help farmers protect against soil erosion and to use ecologically friendly methods like drop irrigation. It also includes programs that pay farmers to grow on less land.

The House has cut this part of the farm bill by about $4.8 billion (compared with business-as-usual) — in part because the government will be supervising a smaller total area. Meanwhile, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition points out that most conservation programs will be cut by an extra $2.1 billion in total because of the sequester over the next decade.

Trade, $3.6 billion over 10 years. This money is used to promote U.S. crops overseas and provide food aid abroad. The government also offers some technical assistance to farmers in developing countries.

President Obama had earlier called for an overhaul of the food aid program. Instead of buying food from U.S. farmers and shipping it overseas, some of the money would just be sent directly to poor countries. But those reform efforts foundered, and the House ended up keeping the food-aid program intact.

Energy, $243 million over 10 years. This includes money for biofuels as well as for energy-efficiency programs in rural areas. It also provides funding to help develop biochemicals and bioplastics industries, in an attempt to reduce the country's reliance on fossil fuels. The House provisions in this bill are considerably smaller than those in the Senate version.

Miscellaneous, about $1.5 billion over 10 years. This includes everything from forestry programs to rural development to research and development. There are programs for promoting farmers markets, selling off timber on federal lands, and even research into organic agriculture and citrus diseases. The Senate bill would create a new R&D agency akin to the National Institutes of Health.

Wait! But what about the Senate bill?

Remember, the Senate has already passed its own $955 billion farm bill. The Congressional Research Service has a helpful graphic that compares the two versions against the current baseline:

Compared with the Senate bill, the House bill has less money for food stamps and nutrition. There's also somewhat less money for conservation, slightly deeper cuts to commodity payments, and a bit more money for crop insurance, thanks to a number of different rules used to calculate payments.

If the House approves its version of the farm bill on Thursday, the two bills will then have to be reconciled somehow.

Further reading: 

--NPR’s Scott Neuman wrote a primer on the history of the farm bill and why it's so important.

--Over at Grist, Tom Laskawy has an interesting essay on whether sustainable agriculture advocates should be happy with the bill or not.

--Some members of Congress want even deeper cuts to subsidies for farmers. Here's a piece from Taxpayers for Common Sense on this broader topic.

Note: This post is an updated and expanded version of this older guide to the Senate farm bill.

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