By Marlin Stutzman and Michael Needham
By American Enterprise Institute
For decades, an unholy Washington alliance—between rural lawmakers and their urban and suburban colleagues—has caused exponential growth in spending by combining farm policy and food stamps in one huge legislative package. It’s a practice our nation can no longer afford as we approach $16 trillion in debt. Yet in July the House Agriculture Committee passed a farm bill with nearly $1 trillion in spending, or 60% more than was contained in the 2008 bill (passed by the Nancy Pelosi-led Congress over the veto of then-President George W. Bush).
Instead of combining farm policy, food stamps, telecommunications, energy, forestry and conservation into a single legislative vehicle, we must begin advancing one issue at a time. Even Americans with differing views on the role of the federal government in U.S. agriculture should agree that any farm bill passed by Congress be a farm-only bill. Only by breaking this massive bill into manageable, understandable pieces can we begin to make meaningful reforms.
From its name, you’d never know that 80% of the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act goes toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps. But it does—and, like most programs rooted in the New Deal and Great Society, this one has grown exponentially.
Thanks to misaligned incentives for the states and a consistent weakening of eligibility criteria, the cost of the food-stamps program doubled between 2001 and 2006. Then, thanks to President Obama’s stimulus, it doubled again between 2008 and 2012.
Taxpayers now spend $80 billion a year on food stamps, an amount the Senate “farm bill” would essentially lock in for the next decade. The bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee is almost as bad, shaving just 2% from the stimulus-era levels.
In the 1970s, just one in 50 Americans received food benefits. Today that number is one in seven. In other words, 15% of the U.S. population is dependent on food stamps. Half of all food-stamp spending goes toward individuals who have been on the program for eight years or more. There can be no doubt that we are in the midst of a dependency crisis, and conservatives especially shouldn’t settle for locking in Obama-era levels of government dependence.
The Obama administration wants to make Americans more dependent on government, not less. Witness its recent decision to gut the federal work requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program created by the 1996 reform of welfare.
Instead of removing work requirements, we should be expanding them. Adding common-sense work requirements to the food-stamp program would begin the process of reversing the corrosive aspect of government dependency.
Yet even discussing such measures is difficult, if not impossible, when the food-stamp program is carried under the banner of a farm bill. The Orwellian language of Washington creates unnecessary confusion and makes responsible governing needlessly difficult. It is time to have a farm-only farm bill, and move other policies separately.
Mr. Stutzman is a Republican congressman from Indiana. Mr. Needham is chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America.
A version of this article appeared August 2, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The ‘Farm’ Bill Is No Such Thing.
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