Nothing illustrates the dysfunctional nature of Congress like its abortive efforts to pass a new farm bill. If you have gotten the impression that our nation’s lawmakers are not even trying, you would be right.
The current farm law, actually an extension of the 2008 law, will not expire until September so there is no emergency. If that happens, agriculture policy will revert to 1949 laws, which will suit some of our congressmen just fine. However, it would be a disaster for much of Arkansas and other states that rely heavily on a farm-based economy.
Here’s a summary of where we are:
• On June 10 a new farm bill costing nearly $955 billion over the next 10 years passed the U.S. Senate in a bipartisan vote of 66 to 27 (46 Democrats, 18 Republicans and two independents). It would cut $24 billion from current spending levels, including about $4.1 billion from the food stamps program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
• On June 20, after two days of debate and more than 100 attempts to amend the Senate bill, it was rejected by the House of Representatives by 195 to 234. Voting no were 172 Democrats and 62 other Republicans.
• Last Thursday the House, including all four Arkansas representatives, passed a bill deleting SNAP entirely by 216 to 208. No Democrat voted for it.
Afterward, 1st District Congressman Rick Crawford, issued this statement: "Today the House took the first step in the long process of putting a full, 5-year farm bill in place. This is not a perfect bill, nor is this approach my first choice. However, more than anything Arkansas must have a farm bill in place. Passage of this measure puts us one step closer in getting to conference with the Senate …"
Mr. Crawford, a former agri broadcaster, knows better. This was worse than an imperfect bill. It was a blatant partisan move that did nothing except show how little we can expect from our elected representatives.
He was more forthright in June when he said the Senate bill was not perfect but should have been passed and that its failure could cause "drastic price increases for consumers and major disruptions for farm operators."
Yet he voted with the likes of 4th District Congressman Tom Cotton and other Republicans last week to pass a bill they all know will be dead on arrival in the Senate.
The Democrats are not without blame in this debacle. The Senate bill could have easily passed if only a few of the 172 Democrats hadn’t turned against it. Instead they joined with Tea Party radicals because of a misguided notion that the nutrition program would be cut too deeply.
So how does it sound to cut SNAP entirely?
That’s the Republicans’ plan. Following Speaker John Boehner’s strategy of passing legislation in bits and pieces, the Republicans promise to consider SNAP separately. Of course, there is no bill pending to that effect because they know the Senate won’t consider it.
The House version of the farm bill actually would spend more money on subsidies for farmers and would eliminate the Senate’s limit on aid to farmers with incomes of more than $750,000 a year. It also would provide a bigger increase for the crop insurance program, thus benefitting the insurance companies that sell coverage to farmers.
But poor people on food stamps would have to wait until — well, no one knows.
Cotton was particularly happy with the current development, having pledged not to vote for any farm bill that included SNAP. He contends that farm programs have been "needlessly chained" to the food-stamp program.
That "chaining" dates back to 1964, when at the urging of then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress passed a combination bill as a compromise, a word sadly missing from today’s political vocabulary. The idea was to get urban lawmakers to vote for farm legislation while at the same time getting rural legislators to support food stamps, which indirectly benefit farmers, too.
Splitting SNAP from the farm bill could backfire on rural states like Arkansas. Subsidies for big farm corporations are a tough sell in non-agricultural states, which have more voting power.
Why does such a link make sense? Randy Veach, a Mississippi County farmer and president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, made a strong case in a June op ed piece.
"Even with this nation’s previous commitments to a world-class food program, there is hunger," he wrote. "In our nation now, as many as 17 million children are struggling with what is known as ‘food insecurity.’
"And that is in the United States, the bread basket for much of the world. In the world today, with roughly 7 billion people, a child dies every six seconds from malnutrition — something I find almost unbelievable and utterly offensive."
SNAP reaches 509,000 Arkansas residents. Among those, 45 percent are children, 25 percent are adults living with children, 6 percent are elderly and 12 percent are disabled adults. The average benefit per day per person is $4.05. Our congressmen should try to eat on that.
SNAP recipients don’t hire lobbyists or make campaign contributions. This is a sorry place for political games.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.