A Farm Bill by the Boot Straps

After two years of not passing a Farm Bill out of the House, it should be obvious to everyone that Farm Bills, as we have known and passed them, are over.  This time around, a majority wanted to end direct payments; the Farm Bill did that.  Most Members wanted to make producers more dependent on crop insurance as a risk management program; the Farm Bill did that. Some wanted reform in the food stamp program; the Committee bill did that.  Some, but not all, of the other desired changes were included in the bill presented for final vote on the House floor.  Yet, instead of accepting victory and moving the bill to conference to actually enact these achievements, too many Members who supported these changes voted against final passage.  So, instead of reform, we are looking at continuing the policies of the past for perhaps another year.  How could this have happened?

We can and must reduce spending responsibly.  In fact, I do believe we can reduce spending beyond the levels recommended by the House Agriculture Committee.

If anything is clear, it’s that Congress needs to improve its work ethic (instead of going home for multiple recesses as it has just done, again!).  The House worked its will on dairy, but not on sugar – why?  All subsidies must be looked at with the same intensity. Congress had plenty of time, if they took it and used it wisely. Given the House Ag Committee held no hearings on farm or nutrition policy in the first six months of this year, it should come as no surprise why Committee leaders were unable to refer to expert testimony and the reasonable exchange of ideas to defend the Farm Bill proposals they were advancing.  Regarding the controversial Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in particular, I would recommend that the Committee hold in-depth hearings in July, September, October – until a consensus can be reached on how to reduce costs without taking food from children, old folks, and those who can’t help themselves.  More spending cannot, and must not, be the answer.

Now, there were some in Committee and on the House floor who argued that farm and food policy are not sufficiently linked, and should be divided and argued as two separate bills.  I would argue this approach to be unwise, even if it were plausible, which I don’t think it is.  The American farmer produces more food than any other producer in the world at the lowest price. Therefore, it makes sense for the policy that produces the most plentiful food supply at a price most people can afford to be the jump off point for linking farms with nutrition policy.

Farmers have had the benefit of research and sound science, and have used this consistent knowledge base for years, to produce in abundance to the benefit of the consumer. Some now argue that we should make some foods more expensive to discourage the consumption of those items they believe to be of limited nutritional value.  Most often, that argument comes from those who can afford to pay more for food. If someone on a low income budget is buying the food items that are affordable on their income, or affordable with SNAP benefits, what will happen to them if food prices increase?  The ongoing debate between the House, the Senate and the advocacy groups regarding the proper budget number for SNAP poses a significant question: Does anyone really believe the budget dollars and votes are there to pay for higher food prices? Furthermore, should they be there?

So, how do you make food cheaper? Food safety, labeling, and environmental requirements all cost money, as do wages and health benefits for workers in the food industry.  The food industry is not a non-profit, and if you try to make it one, then you push out the incentive for innovation.  Should those who are eligible for SNAP be restricted as to what they can buy?  Some say absolutely; others say such requirements would only make it more difficult and expensive to administer the program.

Perhaps a better question to ask is, who has done an evaluation of the nutrition education programs offered by SNAP, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), school meals, etc?  Millions of dollars are spent each year on these programs.  If people aren’t making informed choices, then it is reasonable to question the effectiveness of these programs.

Research, technology and scientific discovery continue to enhance food safety and availability. But our agricultural research funding has been flat-lined while other countries increase theirs and pursue the markets we like to call “ours.”  This is of the upmost importance given our farmers and ranchers will need to produce more food in the next 50 years than was produced in the last 10,000 years combined to keep up with the growth in human population.  Biotechnology in the 21st Century could well be as important as pasteurization was in the 19th Century.  Why is it that those who oppose biotechnology are never questioned as to how the hungry people of the world are going to be fed?

We do have a moral obligation to help our neighbors.  But if it is true that we now have 79 federal, means-tested programs that offer cash, food, housing, healthcare, or social services to the poor, would it not make some sense to look into who is getting what and how much? It should not be considered mean-spirited to suggest that only those who qualify should receive benefits. At a time when have fewer dollars to spend, don’t we have an obligation to be sure that each dollar is well spent?

To those who ignore our $600 billion deficits, our $17 trillion debt and $73 trillion long-term promises that cannot be kept: Why do you only worry about today and the next election?  And let us not forget; it took the Senate over 1,460 days to pass a budget.  It has now been over 100 days with no conference on the budget!  How many more days is it going to take?  A budget is a must in order to reach the compromises necessary to govern!

Boysie E. Day, former Professor of Plant Physiology at University of California–Riverside and pioneer in the science of weed control, once said, “Agriculture is not just the most essential industry; it is the only essential industry.”  Congress has an obligation to act responsibly, especially when dealing with the essential industry.

It’s time to pull on the boot straps, and find a way to get the Farm Bill done.

Former Congressman Charlie Stenholm represented the 17th District of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives for 26 years. He was a member of the House Agriculture Committee throughout his career, serving as the Committee’s ranking Democrat for his last eight years in office.  

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