After a failed attempt earlier, the House GOP has finally passed legislation to fund U.S. farm policy for the next five years. The only catch? This new legislation is missing the $743 billion for food stamps that had been in previous bills.
Instead, House Republicans decided to focus solely on passing a package of subsidies for farmers and agribusinesses worth about $195 billion over the next 10 years. (The final vote was 216 to 208.)
Unlike the Senate farm bill, the House version has no funding whatsoever for food stamps for the poor. The House leadership has said it will come back later this month and try to scrounge up money for food aid in a separate piece of legislation.
So what happens now? There are a few possibilities:
1) The House could try to reconcile its ag-only bill with the Senate's broader farm bill. Note that the Senate has already passed its own farm legislation that will cost $955 billion over 10 years. About 80 percent of the money in the Senate version goes toward nutritional programs and food stamps to help low-income households pay for groceries. (The official name for this is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.)
The Senate and House could try to reconcile their two very different bills in conference — and the final version could well include food-stamp money. But any reconciled bill would still need to pass the House again — and conservatives there don't want to vote for the Senate's food-stamp formula, which would cut spending by just $3.9 billion over the next 10 years.
2) The House could pass its own food-stamp bill later this month. Alternatively, the House could approve its own separate bill to reauthorize the food-stamp program. Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities worries that the GOP will eventually come up with "a still harsher SNAP bill designed to pass solely with Republican votes."
Here's what he means: Recall that the previous House farm bill would have cut food-stamp funding by $20.5 billion over 10 years. That legislation failed to pass because the cuts were too steep for many House Democrats and not steep enough for many House Republicans. If the next food-stamp bill made even sharper cuts, then Republicans might be able to pass it on their own. But, again, the final product would still have to get through the Democratic Senate. There'd still be an impasse.
3) Congress might not agree on any food-stamp bill at all. Of course, it's also possible that the House and Senate can't agree on anything with regard to food stamps. Then there's the question of what happens when the current SNAP program lapses on Sept. 30.
Many aspects of the food-stamp program, including eligibility rules, are written into permanent law, but funding still needs to be approved through the usual congressional appropriations bills. "What happens then is unclear," notes Greenstein, "with a decided risk of Republican threats and actions to short-change SNAP’s appropriation on the grounds that the program hasn’t been reauthorized."
It's also possible that food stamps would simply get funded at their current level again through appropriations if Congress can't work out a farm bill. That's what happened in 2012. And Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) is predicting that the same thing could happen this time around.
Either way, there's a fair bit at stake here: Some 46.6 million people received food stamps in 2012 — a number that had surged in recent years due to the recession. The average benefit is about $133.41 per month. If that funding lapsed, that would be a lot of money pulled out of the U.S. economy all at once.
It's also worth adding that food stamps aren't the only controversial part of the House bill. Plenty of outside conservative groups were also dissatisfied with the subsidies for farmers and agribusinesses — on the grounds that they're even more lavish in places than they were in past farm bills.
"The bill passed today strips out many of the 2018 sunset provisions contained in the previous version, making the subsidy ridden 2013 bill the new permanent law," said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, in a statement. She cited several new provisions in the House bill that would increase farm spending: "New shallow loss income entitlement programs, expanded crop insurance, market distorting sugar subsidies, new profit margin insurance for dairy, and resurrected government-set prices."
The White House also disapproved of the House farm bill in a statement, according to my colleague Ed O'Keefe: "It is apparent... that the bill does not contain sufficient commodity and crop insurance reforms and does not invest in renewable energy, an important source of jobs and economic growth in rural communities across the country." On Wednesday, the White House had issued a veto threat for any bill that failed to address food aid policy.