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Sun., June 23, 2013, midnight

Editorial: Inclusion of food aid hampers Farm Bill

If the congressional torching of the Farm Bill were to give rise to separate farm and food assistance bills, it would be a positive development. If not, it’s just senseless arson.

A combination of Republicans and Democrats handed House Speaker John Boehner an ignominious defeat on Thursday by voting against the bill. Republicans said they wanted bigger cuts to the food stamp program. Democrats said the cuts were already too big, plus Republicans tacked on last-minute amendments that would make eligibility more difficult.

Essentially, the battle over food stamps scuttled the positive farm policy reforms in the bill. The same thing happened last year, meaning the country is still working off extensions of the 2008 bill. This has some observers wondering whether the old alliance of farm state Republicans and urban Democrats has enough heft to pass five-year farm bills anymore.

Tim McGreevy, CEO of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council in Moscow, Idaho, has been working farm bills since 1985, and he said this is the first one that has failed to pass a House vote. It seems the partisanship that has locked down so many congressional issues has now claimed agriculture.

It would be better if Congress could separate the issues of farming and nutrition and consider them on the merits. As it is, farm bills are fashioned with an eye toward collecting enough votes of self-interested politicians. In the past, this back-scratching has gotten bills passed, but it hasn’t produced the smartest policies.

Plus, the something-for-everyone approach yields considerable sticker shock. The bill that was voted down carried a five-year price tag of $955 billion. That’s a lot of spending at a time when the budget deficit needs chopping.

But promising reforms that would wean farmers off direct subsidies and end indefensible handouts to wealthy absentee “farmers” got caught in the politics of poverty and food assistance.

The House bill took a 10-year, $20.5 billion whack at the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). The Senate’s cut was only $4 billion. In the wake of the recession, a record number of people are using food stamps, but with the economy improving, some winnowing is in order.

Agriculture is a $40 billion industry in Washington state, employing about 160,000 people. Peas, potatoes, lentils and wheat are big business, and farmers need an up-to-date plan, not one based on the circumstances of 2008.

The current farm bill extension expires in September, so congressional leaders will be scrambling to put together something that can pass. A House amendment to consider farm and nutrition issues under separate bills was shot down. Congress should reconsider; otherwise the market distortions and harmful impasse will continue.

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