At the end of the year, Congress makes a mad dash to pass legislation that, for whatever reason, is stalled somewhere in the process. Most of these measures won’t pass, but the prospect of a final year-end bill impels lawmakers and lobbyists to push support for their individual measures. The bill with the most lobbying power behind it now is the $1 Trillion Farm Bill. The long-stalled bill has a good chance of passing in the final flurry of legislative activity.
The Farm Bill is a bit of a misnomer. Traditionally designed as federal programs to subsidize agriculture and specific crops, the bill now deals mostly with the federal food stamp program. Over 80% of the spending in the trillion dollar bill is consumed by food stamps. Disagreements over changes to this program have blocked passage of a farm bill for a couple of years, but extensive talks are underway to bridge a deal. Although the crop programs are now just a small part of the bill, they enjoy enormous lobbying power and special interests.
Spending on food stamps has exploded over the past several years, with the downturn in the economy. Over 47 million Americans now receive food stamps, the highest in history. Reducing this spending is blocking agreement on the bill.
The House version of the legislation would cut the food stamp program by $40 billion over the next ten years, a cut of just over 5% over the decade. Senate Democrats want only around $4 billion in cuts to the program over the next ten years. Earlier this year, spending in the program was cut by $11 billion with the expiration of temporary stimulus-related provisions. Democrats want to count this as cuts now, which only works in Washington budget math.
Current negotiations in the conference committee are settling on $10 billion in cuts to the program. Most of the savings would come from small tweaks in how benefits are calculated, rather than tightening eligibility.
The clock may run out on negotiations, though. The House is in session this week and next. The Senate meets next week and the following week. There are then just a few days when both chambers are in session. While the chambers don’t have to be in session simultaneously, any last minute changes could scuttle a deal if they aren’t.
The agriculture sector is a very powerful interest, however, especially in many Republican districts. Congress would probably prefer to reauthorize the bill this year, instead of an election year. Whatever happens in these final legislative days in 2013, the next time Congress addresses this issue, it ought to drop “farm” from the title and call the bill what it really is — The Food Stamp Bill.