The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is it time for food stamps to come out of the farm bill?

Remember this chart about the contents of the House farm bill?

As you can see, the farm bill isn't purely a "farm" bill. About 80 percent of the bill actually goes toward food stamps for the poor and other nutritional programs — a long-standing arrangement that explains why the farm bill has historically gotten plenty of votes from politicians in both rural farm districts and urban areas.

Yet after the House farm bill unexpectedly failed last month, some Republicans wanted to change all that. Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) filed amendments to break up the bill into two parts, so that food stamps and farm subsidies could be debated separately.

"Taxpayers deserve an honest conversation about how Washington spends their money," Stutzman said, "and that won’t happen as long as Congress expands the food stamp program under the guise of a Farm Bill."

Sounds simple enough, right? But as it turns out, splitting the farm bill in two doesn't make the politics any less unwieldy. As The Hill's Erik Wasson reports, this new approach still can't muster up 218 votes to pass the House, according to the latest whip count.

Opposition has been stiff: 532 farm groups, including the American Farm Bureau, argued against bill-splitting, saying it would disrupt a delicate arrangement that had held for decades. Many Democrats also opposed the move, worrying that it would allow the GOP to enact even deeper cuts to the food-stamp program. (The House bill already cut food-stamp spending by $20.5 billion over the next 10 years, compared with $3.9 billion of cuts in the Senate bill.)

What's more, many conservatives didn't like the split either, in large part because the House leadership wouldn't allow any amendments to the agriculture-only component — that is, to the parts that spent money on commodity programs for farmers and an expansion of crop insurance. (These agriculture portions of the House bill would cost $195.6 billion over 10 years, compared with $194.5 billion in the Senate version.)

"Splitting nutrition and agriculture programs into separate bills is a good idea, but only because that it would break the Ag-Urban unholy alliance that logrolled over attempts to reform both programs," wrote Stephen Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense over e-mail. "To deny amendments and reforms would make bifurcation virtually meaningless."

One problem here is that splitting the farm bill doesn't make the fundamental political dilemma go away, says Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "If the ultimate goal is to have a farm bill that gets signed into law, then there has to be a bill that's acceptable to the Senate and the White House." Simply splitting the bill in two and allowing deeper cuts to the food-stamp programs won't help there.

In theory, Hoefner notes, it would be quite possible for the House leadership to craft a farm bill that picked up 60 or 70 Democratic votes and passed into law easily. But it's still not clear that House Speaker John Boehner wants to do that.

If the House can't pass a bill at all, then things get... interesting. The food-stamp program is technically written into permanent law, so it could continue indefinitely so long as Congress funded it through future appropriations bills.* Federal crop insurance would also remain in place, since that's permanent.

The really tricky part is what would happen to all the other programs that get re-upped in each five-year farm bill. That includes price supports for corn, wheat, soybeans and dairy. It also includes forestry programs and agricultural research. In theory, if Congress didn't pass any farm bill, many of these programs would revert to their 1949-era status, since that was the last permanent farm law passed. (Here’s a primer on all the weird things that were poised to happen, including surging milk prices.)

* Correction: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is technically a mandatory program, but it needs to be funded through appropriations bills. So if the farm bill failed to pass, Congress would still have to fund the food-stamp program through its regular spending bills. Historically, Congress has usually done this when needed, but it's not "automatic" — and Republicans could certainly try to chip away at the program through appropriations bills.


--A short history of food stamps, and why they were included in the farm bill.

--Here's what's in the five-year, $940 billion House farm bill that failed.