IN WASHINGTON these days, bad outcomes that could have been worse count as victories. Case in point: the emerging House and Senate agreement on another five-year extension of federal farm programs.
No one quite knows what the ultimate cost of the farm bill will be, though earlier versions tipped the scales at $870 billion-plus over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The vast majority of that money, roughly 80 percent, goes to the government’s main nutritional aid program for the poor, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. This brings us to the (relatively) good news about the House-Senate deal: It omits a provision in the House bill that would have tightened eligibility for SNAP by requiring childless adult recipients between the ages of 49 and 59, as well as adults with children 6 or older, to work or participate in job-training programs for 20 hours per week.
Ostensibly a measure to encourage “independence” among this population, the proposal would actually have saved the federal government only about $1.5 billion over the next 10 years, according to the CBO — while ballooning state bureaucracies needed to enforce the work requirement. Meanwhile, up to 1.2 million previously eligible people would have wound up without benefits — in other words, hungrier.
In one important respect, however, the farm bill appears likely to loosen a work requirement. We refer now to the rest of the measure, which provides a “safety net” — subsidies — for agricultural commodity producers. Current law limits the amount any one farmer can receive from the two largest crop-subsidy programs to $125,000 per year ($250,000 for married couples). However, there is a large loophole for “family farms” that permits not only a couple but also their children (and their spouses) to get paid as long as they are “actively engaged” in the management of the business. And this particular requirement can be met through little more than occasional participation in farm-related paper-pushing.
Even that is too stringent for some owners of large farms, who have pushed for an expanded definition of a “family farm” that will enable more distant relatives — such as nephews, nieces and cousins — to receive up to $125,000 each, as long as they do something that can be characterized as management. The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Michael K. Conaway (R-Tex.), says this is a way to keep new generations of younger people involved in farming, and his concern has carried the day, because this provision is reportedly included in the final bill.
As we say, it could have been worse; for the most part, this farm bill simply maintains the existing set of subsidy programs, bloated and wasteful as they often are. Still, the extension of taxpayer largesse to extended families would be a step backward in the long-term fight for incremental rationalization of agriculture policy. It is also quite a comment on Republican legislative priorities: The party’s lawmakers have fought simultaneously to make the poor work more for taxpayer-funded help they really need, while allowing some farmers’ relatives to work hardly at all to get taxpayer-funded help they don’t need.