Sometimes things go better together than you’d think, such as bacon and chocolate, or Hall and Oates, however, not all combinations work. For years, some Members of Congress have thought that food stamps and farm programs—while very distinct from each other—are a great political fit. As Senator Thad Cochran (R–MS), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee recently explained, food stamps should continue to be included in the farm bill “purely from a political perspective. It helps get the farm bill passed.”
For taxpayers and voters though, this unholy alliance has been more like oil and water than peanut butter and jelly. The “farm bill,” which is recurring legislation that packages food stamps with farm programs every five years or so, has become a $1 trillion bill of subsidies and welfare programs that ignores sound policy and open and accountable government.
Even calling this massive legislation the “farm bill” is misleading. It’s really the food stamp bill that happens to include the critical farm programs. About 80 percent of farm bill spending is devoted to food stamps and nutrition assistance programs. By cramming these distinct programs into one bill though, legislators are able to gain support for their interests that they otherwise wouldn’t get, and also secure cover for positions that otherwise wouldn’t be palatable to their constituents.
As the farm bill is considered this year, Congress should take the important step of separating out food stamps and farm programs into different pieces of legislation.
The Benefits of Separating Food Stamps from Farm Programs
Accountability. Americans, regardless of their positions on food stamps or farm programs, should expect their representatives to take on these critical issues independently. Legislators shouldn’t be able to avoid accountability for a vote on one program by pointing to the need to support or oppose a completely distinct program. Especially as the unholy alliance typically means pressure to expand both programs.
Open Government. Politicians talk about open and transparent government. A critical part of open government is taking a clear stand on major issues.
Simplification. The food stamp and farm programs are extremely complex. It would be difficult enough for legislators to address just one of these areas, much less both. Dividing up the programs would allow legislators to more realistically digest the numerous aspects of these programs.
Proper Congressional Committees. The food stamp program is a means-tested, welfare program, providing aid to low-income individuals and families. It makes little sense that this program is considered in the agriculture committees. Instead, the program should be considered in the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee.
Real Reform. Most importantly, real reform and improvements to these programs would have a much better chance of being enacted.
These reforms would include:
- Food stamps. The food stamps program has hardly changed since it began in the 1960s, that is, aside from the major growth in participation and spending. “[I]t remains a program that discourages work, rewards idleness, and promotes long-term dependence,” note Heritage’s Robert Rector and Kiki Bradley. Today, the program costs taxpayers roughly $80 billion a year, and in fiscal year (FY) 2012, an average 47 million Americans were enrolled in the program. Food stamps should be reformed to include a work requirement for able-bodied adults. In addition, when employment rates recover, food stamp spending should be rolled back to pre-recession levels. Welfare should promote personal responsibility and work, rather than long-term government dependence.
- Farm programs. Congress should repeal outdated farm policies. Short of that, Congress should take steps that would, among other things:
- Limit farm subsidies to farmers with adjusted gross incomes below $250,000,
- Cap insurance premium subsidies that farmers can receive through the crop insurance program and reduce the percentage of total premiums that taxpayers must subsidize,
- Eliminate bad programs such as direct payments without creating new programs that are as bad or worse, and
- Repeal the sugar and dairy programs.
When taxpayers are going to be on the hook for $1 trillion, they should know why their legislators supported or opposed such costly legislation. Unless food stamps are pulled out of the farm bill, taxpayers and voters will continue to be left guessing.