by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

Jan 31 2014

Yes, the farm bill is politically corrupt. Veto it!

I’ve been hearing from readers challenging my disgusted comments about the politics of the farm bill.

The bill is so awful that the Washington Post says it deserves a veto:

Tipping the financial scales at $956 billion over 10 years, or just over $1 billion per page, the hideously complex bill is supposedly a compromise that reforms crop subsidy programs…what the bill takes from the ag lobby with one hand, it largely gives back with the other…the bill cuts $8.5 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the poor…attached to so much corporate welfare, it’s hard to swallow, especially when that corporate welfare isn’t rigorously means-tested.

The New York Times doesn’t go that far.  It supports the bill, but grudgingly: “The farm bill could have been worse:”

On balance, the bill is clearly worthy of support, particularly because it will prevent austerity fanatics in future Congresses from gutting food stamps for the next five years….But endorsing the bill also means acknowledging the low expectations for real progress in Washington…As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues, rejecting the farm bill means rolling the dice that the next Congress will do a better job. In today’s environment, that’s a tough bet.

Why is the farm bill politically corrupt?

  • It is indeed “hideously complex,” so much so that nobody can possibly make intelligent decisions about very much of it.
  • It is so difficult to read (because it refers to previously legislation) that all kinds of things can get into it without being noticed or discussed.
  • It is mired in “pork,” things put into it by members of agriculture committees to please particular groups of constituents or lobbyists.
  • It is not about what’s best for the American people, farmers, or the poor; it is about what’s best for getting legislators elected.
  • It represents a substantial transfer of taxpayer dollars to the wealthiest “farmers” (i.e., agribusiness) at the expense of the poor and, therefore, legislates further income inequity.

I’m with the Washington Post on this one.  If the Senate passes it and the president signs it, it’s only because they’ve given up on trying to govern the country from some rational perspective.

Jan 29 2014

More on the politically corrupt farm bill, not yet passed

Brad Plumer, the WonkBlogger at the Washington Post did some homework on the farm bill based on cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

The grand total: $956.4 billion over 10 years.chart_1

Whether the total cuts (“savings”) from the previous bill amount to $16 billion (the CBO estimate) or $23 billion (the congressional estimate) depends on how they do the calculations, but all estimates agree that the big cuts over ten years come from three areas:

  • Farm programs: -$18.4 billion
  • Conservation: -$6.1 billion
  • SNAP: -$8 billion

ProPolitico Morning Agriculture points out that President Obama’s speech last night did not mention the farm bill.  Really, it’s too awful to talk about in public.

Jan 28 2014

A brief early comment on the (ugh) farm bill

It’s too soon for me to say much about the farm bill other than to express disgust for the entire process.

The House and Senate still have to vote on it, which leaves plenty more opportunity for last-minute amendments, the addition of even more pork, and even more welfare for the rich at the expense of the poor.

In the meantime, we have the

What can I say?  The farm bill is a mess—the worst example of the worst of food politics.

Every clause in those 949 pages exists as the result of special-interest lobbying.  Guess what: some special-interest groups have more money and power than others.

The result: an unattractive compromise.

If the bill is ever to pass, everyone has to compromise, but some groups have to compromise more than others.

How else to explain the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities’ statement that the SNAP cuts represent a reasonable compromise?

To be sure, the conference agreement does include $8.6 billion in SNAP cuts over the next decade. Yet it stands in sharp contrast to the nearly $40 billion in SNAP cuts in the House-passed bill of September, which contained an array of draconian provisions and would have thrown 3.8 million people off SNAP in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The conference agreement includes none of the draconian House provisions — and it removes virtually no low-income households from SNAP.

I am indebted to ProPoliticoAg for listing the winners: groups that want to retain Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL), the dairy manufacturers, organic producers (!), the U.S. catfish industry (USDA will inspect catfish, not FDA), and animal welfare groups (states can insist on standards),   The soybean and rice industries are also happy with the bill, as are groups that want more flexibility in food aid.

ProPoliticoAg’s losers:  meat packers and processors who wanted to get rid of COOL, dairy farmers who preferred a different program, the poultry industry (which will have to abide by state cage-size requirements), anti-hunger advocates (the SNAP cuts).

ProPoliticoAg also read the fine print (as I promise to do once the bill passes):

  • $20 million per year for emergency relief to producers of livestock, honey bees and farm raised fish (p. 131-132)
  • A USDA report on the federal standard for the identity of honey (p. 802)
  • A citrus disease subcommittee to advise on citrus research (p. 568-569)
  • A requirement for USDA to recognize feral swine risks (p. 890)
  • $2.25 million per year through 2019 for wool research and promotion (p. 928)
  • A go-ahead to create a Christmas tree promotion board and 15-cent tax on fresh-cut trees (p. 805).
Jan 14 2014

Congress releases its draft budget bill (sigh)

In the strange way the U.S. government works, Congress has produced the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014,” which authorizes payments for government services, including those related to agriculture.

This is not the farm bill.  It’s what Congress decides taxpayers will pay for in the farm bill as well as bills that cover other programs run by USDA.

The House summary of agriculture appropriations is a lot easier to read than the bill itself, although it contains its share of double speak.  Try this:

WIC – This program provides supplemental nutritional foods needed by pregnant and nursing mothers, babies and young children. The bill provides full funding for WIC at $6.7 billion – $153 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level…This level will ensure all eligible participants will be served.

Can someone please explain to me how a cut of $153 million will ensure service to everyone who is eligible?  WIC is not an entitlement; eligible people cannot be served once the money runs out.

The bill does provide full spending—$82.2 billion—for SNAP, but only because it has to.  SNAP is an entitlement and spending for it is mandatory.  Unless, of course, Congress ever passes the farm bill, which currently contains a $9 billion proposed cut.

And here’s more double speak.  “The legislation includes several provisions to reduce spending and increase oversight of taxpayer dollars.”  How?  By authorizing spending for:

  • Oversight and monitoring requirements for the WIC program, including a directive for the Secretary of Agriculture to increase oversight of vendors to help rein in food costs;
  • A provision requiring USDA to submit a plan for reducing high error rates and improper payments in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs;
  • Requirements for the Secretary of Agriculture to help weed out and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in the SNAP program – including a directive to ban fraudulent vendors, and a prohibition on advertisements or outreach with foreign governments.

And why does the FDA’s budget still get decided by committees dealing with agricultural appropriations?

The FDA is a public health agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, which is funded by entirely different committees which you might think understand its mission a lot better than committees fussing about legislation that

restricts the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing certain regulations that would allow harmful government interference in the private market for the livestock and poultry industry.

I can hardly wait to see what the farm bill will look like.

Dec 11 2013

Food Policy Action releases handy Congress “scorecard” on food issues

Washington is such a mess that you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, and this one is really useful.

Food Policy Action to the rescue.

Food Policy Action is a project of the Environmental Working Group.  Ken Cook of EWG is its chair.  Tom Colicchio is listed as the first board member.

The 2013 National Food Policy Scorecard ranks each member of the Senate and House on their votes on food issues.

The interactive map lets you click on a state and see how our congressional representatives are voting.  According to the scorecard, 87 members are Good Food Champions.  We need more!

I looked up New York.  Senator Charles Schumer gets a perfect 100%.  Yes!

But Senator Kirsten Gillibrand only gets 67%.

How come?  Click on her name and the site lists her votes on key legislation.  Oops.  She voted against GMO labeling and against a key farm bill amendment on crop insurance.  If you click on the button, you get to learn more about this vote and the legislation.

This kind of information is hard to come by.  Food Policy Action’s scorecard is easy to use and performs a terrific public service.

Thanks to everyone responsible for it.

Jul 22 2013

The Farm Bill: A Very Brief History

I am an avid reader of Jerry Hagstrom’s Hagstrom Report, which I subscribe to and consider well worth the price.  He not only tracks farm and agriculture policy, but explains it in ways that I can actually understand.

Sometimes, his articles go to the National Journal and other places with open access.  This one gives a lucid history of the farm bill along with the politics of the current congressional impasse.

The history matters because the farm bill is otherwise inexplicable.

Here’s how we got to this point:

  • 1933       Congress passes the Agricultural Adjustment Act to deal with commodity surpluses that nobody has any money to buy during the Great Depression.  The bill included production.
  • 1936       Supreme Court rules production controls unconstitutional. Congress passes the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act to deal with this decision and the consequences of the Dust Bowl.
  • 1938       Congress passes new Agricultural Adjustment Act (this includes sections of the 1933 law that were unaffected by the Court ruling, the 1936 conservation law, and new commodity legislation that meets the Court’s standards).
  • 1949       Congress passes law giving high, fixed-support prices that trigger subsidy payments when market prices fall below certain levels.

Since then whenever Congress passes new farm bills, it suspends the 1938 and 1949 commodity titles  for specific periods of time (the alternative would be to amend those laws, or pass new laws that will be permanent and difficult to change).

Where does SNAP fit in?

  • 1964       Congress passes Food Stamp Act
  • 1977       SNAP incorporated into farm bill.

Hagstrom points out that SNAP does not have permanent authorization; it expires with the farm bill.  But it is an entitlement, meaning that anyone who qualifies gets funded.    This, however, requires congressional appropriations.

So everything is up to Congress, and none of the reasonable options look possible.

Sad.  Infuriating, actually.

Jun 21 2013

Government in (in)action: House votes no on farm bill

Yesterday, the House rejected H.R. 1947, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, by a vote of 234 to 195.

Voting against the bill were:

  • Republicans who thought a $20 billion cut to SNAP (food stamps) and a $5 billion cut to farm supports were not nearly deep enough.
  • Democrats who were appalled by the cuts to SNAP and the addition of amendments requiring SNAP applicants to be tested for drugs, to be rejected if they had ever been found guilty of felonies, and to be required to work.

Unless Congress gets its act together, support for SNAP and agriculture revert to the provisions of the 2008 bill [Oops.  The 1949 bill].  Congress will have to deal with some of trauma that results from this.

My favorite comment on this situation comes from Joel Berg, Executive Director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger:

We celebrate the failure of this horrific federal Farm Bill which would have slashed SNAP nutrition benefits by over $20 billion. Not only would this Farm Bill have taken food off the table of low-income children, veterans, working parents, and people with disabilities, it would have actually expanded corporate welfare for agri-businesses…It’s time to go back to the drawing board, and for both houses of Congress…to pass a Farm Bill that puts the interests of hungry Americans, consumers, family farmers, the environment, and taxpayers above those of corporate welfare.

Is any of this news?  Not page 1, apparently.  I’m in Los Angeles where the New York Times put the story on page 12.

Other comments worth reading:

May 29 2013

Keeping track of the farm bill: 194 amendments so far, just in the Senate

Congress is in recess this week so nothing new is happening on the farm bill.

I’m indebted to Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the Hagstrom Report and follows farm bill issues closely, for publishing a list of amendments filed to date on the Senate draft of the bill.  Would you believe 194?

Of these, the Senate has managed to deal with a few.

The Senate passed:

  • Cantwell amendment to allow Indian tribes to participate in certain soil and water conservation programs. (#919)
  • Sessions amendment to clarify eligibility criteria for agricultural irrigation assistance. (#945, as modified) by unanimous consent.
  • Franken amendment to provide access to grocery delivery for homebound seniors and individuals with disabilities eligible for supplemental nutrition assistance benefits. (#992) by unanimous consent.
  • Vitter amendment to end food stamp eligibility for convicted violent rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. (#1056) by unanimous consent. 
It rejected:
  • Shaheen amendment to reform the federal sugar program, and for other purposes. (#925)
  • Gillibrand amendment to strike a reduction in the supplemental nutrition assistance program, with an offset that limits crop insurance reimbursements to providers. (#931)
  • Roberts amendment to improve and extend certain nutrition programs. (#948)
  • Inhofe amendment to repeal the nutrition entitlement programs and establish a nutrition assistance block grant program. (#960)
  • Sanders amendment to permit states to require that any food, beverage, or other edible product offered for sale have a label on indicating that the food, beverage, or other edible product contains a genetically engineered ingredient. (#965) by a vote of 71 to 27.

Attempts to eliminate cuts to SNAP failed (sigh) but so did an attempt to leave food stamps up to states (cheers).  This means SNAP will have at least a $4 billion cut over 10 years—the best that can be hoped for at this point.

The Senate rejected  GM labeling.

Reform the sugar program?  Don’t be silly.  At some point, I’ll have more to say about that one.

As for the next 190 or so….  And as for what the House will do….

It would be great drama if it weren’t so sad and so much weren’t at stake.