On Thursday, members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted down the latest version of the farm bill. It’s a bill that farmers and ranchers track closely because it sets subsidy amounts for crops and regulates the federal food stamp program. Thirty Republicans and every Democrat in the House voted against the bill.
Joe Outlaw, a professor and extension economist in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University, says the bill failed because of party politics and major changes to SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that replaced food stamps in 2008.
“Producers, they basically can have a nice life without the government being involved, but this bill is basically a safety net,” he says. “And all it means is, when things go bad – either prices or yields – the government’s really going to step in and provide a helping hand to help them get to the next year.”
A key question in crafting the farm bill, Outlaw says, is whether it provides an adequate safety net.
“Over my career, the amount of money provided to farmers has declined substantially, but there is still a safety net there,” he says. “So lenders especially and producers look to what is the signal from the government in terms of how much help could there be if things go bad. It’s really all there is for farmers on the SNAP side.”
In urban districts, members of Congress consider whether the reforms provide enough support for their constituents who rely on SNAP. Outlaw says the farm bill is tied to SNAP so that both rural and urban districts have a stake in the process.
“A number of years ago, with the declining rural representation in Washington, the members on the [agriculture] side said, ‘We have to do something that’s going to get the members from the urban districts to have some reason to vote for this bill.’”
Rep. Mike Conaway, a Midland Republican, chairs the House Agriculture Committee and oversees the contentious decisions behind the farm bill.
“What he did was he put in place some work requirements and increased the age of people that would have to either work or go to a job training in order to get these benefits,” Outlaw says. “And some people just see that as not the way they want to do this.”
This version failed last week, and Outlaw says that’s not uncommon.
“If you look at the history of farm bills, very rarely do they occur on time,” he says. “So we usually have some sort of extension, whether it’s a few months or longer. My guess is, at this point in time, a long term extension is something they’ll be considering fairly soon.”
Written by Jen Rice.