While the House of Representatives voted today to rejoin its food stamp bill with its agriculture-only farm bill, it took a critical step to ensure that separation of the farm bill becomes the norm in the future: It established staggered terms for these programs. Food stamps would be authorized for three years and agriculture programs for five years.
In order to make it far less likely that the programs will be put back together again, food stamps and farm programs must have different reauthorization schedules, with at least a two-year time difference. A one-year difference could easily result in both programs being on the same reauthorization schedule again.
The House, to its credit, took this important procedural step–a prerequisite for reform. There are still many substantive reforms that should be made in both agriculture policy and food stamp policy. The House can make separation part of any final farm bill if lawmakers actively push for this important change in conference with the Senate.
Just because the Senate and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D–NV) have a combined farm bill without staggered terms doesn’t mean the House has to allow Reid to dictate how to develop agriculture and food stamp policy.
Before there can be real reform of the farm bill, there must be separation of the agriculture programs from the food stamp program. The current farm bill isn’t really a farm bill at all: In terms of spending, it’s predominantly a food stamp bill—about 80 percent of the costs are devoted to food stamps.
For decades, there has been an unholy alliance of rural legislators who want to push costly farm programs and urban legislators who want to push food stamps. Politicians don’t even bother to hide the fact that it’s all about politics.
For example, Senator Thad Cochran (R–MS), ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, recently told the North American Agricultural Journalists group that food stamps should continue to be included in the farm bill “purely from a political perspective. It helps get the farm bill passed.”
By promoting separation through staggered terms, the House is helping to take politics out of future farm bill debates and making real, substantive reform a possibility.