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Meet the New Farm Bill

Same as the old farm bill.

Feb 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 23 • By DAVE JUDAY
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After all the time and political capital invested in reform and fiscal restraint, the final legislation that emerged from House-Senate negotiations in early 2014 includes none of the principles for which the GOP was so willing to fight—and shed blood—during the past three years. What emerged is a standard farm bill, spending billions on miscellaneous programs, tens of billions on farm subsidies, and hundreds of billions on SNAP.

SNAP is trimmed by only 1 percent, or $8 billion, and remains part of the farm bill. There are no major reforms or new eligibility requirements for receiving food stamps, except for the exclusion of college students and lottery winners. The permanent law provision is safely ensconced: If a farm bill is not authorized in five years, the threat of a reversion to the 1949 law will still hang over lawmakers’ heads. Spending under the first year of the new bill actually goes up by more than $2 billion.

And farm subsidies, though theoretically trimmed over the long run, arguably have been made worse. According to Senator Pat Roberts, this farm bill “goes backwards towards protectionist subsidy programs.” At issue is the reestablishment of guaranteed reference prices that trigger subsidy payments and how generously they are set. As Roberts explained, “the majority [of farmers will] make the business decision to follow the subsidy signals instead of the market.” In a speech on the Senate floor, Roberts noted that besides himself all four House members in the Kansas delegation voted against the final version of the bill despite its being “arguably the most important” piece of federal legislation to Kansas. That, he notes, should put the rest of the country on alert.

Upon signing it, President Obama said, “with this bill we break the cycle of short-sighted, crisis-driven partisan decision-making and actually get this stuff done. .  .  . And that’s the way you should expect Washington to work.” Sadly, he’s correct. Our expectations about how Washington works really should be that low. The farm bill process was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Dave Juday is an agricultural commodity market analyst.

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