The Farm Bill: What’s in, what’s out and what’s the future

WASHINGTON, D.C. – With details finally filtering in from the split Farm Bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last Thursday, it looks like the bill will have big implications for government spending levels, the agriculture community and the left out nutrition and food assistance legislation.

The Farm Bill has been passed with the agriculture, nutrition and food assistance bundled together for more than four decades as a method to create a rural-metro coalition to ensure both parts pass. The bill also assumes these compliment each other by having farmers provide a product and the food assistance provide a market.

Republican leadership tried to pass a compromise version of the bill back on June 20 that made major reforms and cuts to both sides, but it received a surprise defeat by many of the Tea Party-Affiliated Republicans voting against it over demands for even deeper cuts to food assistance programs. The bill was split and passed with only the agriculture portion on Thursday to appeal to these Republicans, though it resulted in no Democrats voting in favor of the bill.

What’s in, what’s out

For the agriculture portion of the bill, the bill remains largely similar to the compromise agriculture components they tried to vote in on June 20. The bill retains several of the reforms, including ending Direct Payments, Counter-Cyclical Payments, the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payment (SURE) program.

A major component of the deal on the bill is the repeal of Farm laws from 1938 and 1949 that revert agriculture funding levels to the Truman Administration funding levels if no new Farm Bill is passed. This older law was passed in a different social and economic landscape. The law is intended to pressure Congress into passing a new Farm Bill every year, and the repeal would make this 2013 law the new permanent law. Since the current bill is closer to modern levels, there no longer would be pressure on Congress to go back to check or justify agriculture subsidies for many years.

More importantly, the repeal would make any current legislation in the bill permanent law that would require specific legislation separate from the typical Farm Bill update to adjust or end the funding levels. This is notable because several controversial funding levels, such increasing crop insurance subsidies by $9 billion, and expansion or creation of farm subsidies, such as new ones for cotton, peanuts, catfish and even the sticky rice used in sushi, will become permanent law.

For the left-behind nutrition and food assistance portions of the Farm Bill, the decision to split the bill will likely have the ironic, unintended effect of actually providing higher spending levels than the compromise Farm Bill that was shot down in the House.

Unlike the agriculture portions of the Farm Bill, the nutrition and food assistance legislation does not have laws reverting it to a previous spending level, so the current funding levels will persist instead of a proposal to cut $20.5 billion kicking in.

In the longer view, House Republicans are planning to seek historically deep cuts in the nutrition and food assistance programs, with a few even demanding an end to the program. However, they will have to find a way to navigate past the Democratic controlled Senate, which opposes the idea, and a veto threat from President Obama. If the Republicans succeed in passing just the agriculture portion, which has serious challenges in its progress forward, but fail to pass the food assistance cuts they are seeking, the net result will be higher food assistance funding and an overall increase in federal spending between the two Farm Bill components.

Finally, there are uncertainties around funding for conservation and research programs the existing Farm Bill promotes since they are not explicitly contained in the agriculture-only section. Similar to what happens if Congress does not pass a Farm Bill, the program funding will simply stop if no actions are taken. Whether this is a serious chance is unknown at this point, since House legislators have not announced any official plans yet on this topic.

Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at

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