GOP Farm Bill Is Hypocritical on Welfare Reform
If there’s one issue that unites Republicans these days, it is welfare reform. Recognizing that reality, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Tex.) has made work requirements for food stamp recipients the hallmark of this year’s draft of the Farm Bill (H.R. 2), which could head to the House floor as soon as this coming week should Conaway be able to marshal the votes.
Reauthorized every five years, the Farm Bill is a massive legislative package that authorizes funding for all federal food and farm-support programs. About 20 percent of the bill goes to programs for farmers, including commodity support, crop insurance, and conservation programs, while the other 80 percent is directed toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The bill forwarded by the House Agriculture Committee, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would cost $868 billion over the next 10 years, overhauls SNAP by requiring able-bodied adults receiving benefits to work or participate in work training for 20 hours per week. Angered by these SNAP reforms, which may cause as many as 2 million food stamp recipients to lose benefits, Democrats have already walked away from what is typically bipartisan effort. That leaves Conaway needing every vote possible to pass the bill. He hopes the lure of welfare reform will do the trick.
But conservatives should be cautious in their haste to enact welfare reform. Using the Farm Bill as a major vehicle for work requirements while failing to address the rampant waste and cronyism in the “farm” portion of the bill risks setting up House Republicans for an election-year public relations crisis. If conservatives care about welfare reform, they would be wise to apply those same principles to the “farm” portion of the farm bill as well.
Under current agriculture policy, so-called “farmers” who live in urban centers and don’t even work on a farm can rake in subsidies. An amendment by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), which would have tightened requirements to ensure that producers are actively engaged in farming, passed in both the House and Senate during the 2014 Farm Bill. But it was later stripped from the bill in a closed-door deal. The current House bill would actually expand these loopholes with a provision that makes it possible for cousins, nieces, and nephews of farm owners to qualify as family members, each of whom can receive an additional $125,000 in subsidies. If SNAP recipients have to meet work requirements in order to receive government assistance, so should farmers.
To be eligible for SNAP, Americans must show their gross monthly household income is below 130 percent of the poverty line. For a family of three in 2018, that means making less than $2,213 a month, for an annual income of just $26,600 a year. By contrast, farmers are able to rake in taxpayer handouts regardless of the size and profitability of their operation. The federal crop insurance program subsidizes, on average, 62 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums, with no means test whatsoever. This allows the largest farm operations to receive virtually unlimited subsidies. Owners of mega-farms have received more than $1 million in subsidies from taxpayers.
Commodity support programs like the Agricultural Risk Loss (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) do have means tests, but they are set at $900,000 a year in adjusted gross income, or $1.8 million for married couples. Farm owners who make roughly $1 million annually can afford to manage risk on their own dime and shouldn’t need government handouts.
Welfare reform can ensure that limited funds go to those who most need assistance and empower people to lead productive lives. But it’s profoundly hypocritical to demand more from the poorest Americans while making it easier for wealthy farm owners to game the system. H.R. 2 should call for corporate welfare reform. House Republicans should insist on an amendment to restrict crop insurance subsidies to farms with less than $500,000 in adjusted gross income — a proposal that was recommended in President Donald Trump’s FY 2019 budget but ignored by the politicians who crafted the Farm Bill.
If H.R. 2 passes the House as written, it will send the clear message to voters that Republicans only care about welfare reform so long as the recipients aren’t their own special interests. House Republicans do not have to follow Chairman Conaway in walking this plank. They should insist on a fair and open amendment process and advocate for pragmatic, commonsense reforms.
The opportunity to pass a Farm Bill only comes around once every five years. With Democrats having already walked away from the process, Republican lawmakers are in a unique position to enact free-market reforms and craft better farm policy. Conservatives can and should do better than the bill that’s about to come to the floor.
Caroline Kitchens is federal affairs manager for the R Street Institute.