It's Not Groundhog Day - It's Time for the 2013 Farm Bill!

Welcome back, food policy fans! When we last left the process of building a sparkling new 2012 2013 Farm Bill, Congress had just passed a bare-bones extension of some critical farm policy provisions through the end of September, 2013. You may recall that the 2012 Farm Bill died waiting for a vote that was never scheduled in the House of Representatives.

This time around, debate on the 2013 Farm Bill is included in the summer schedule set by the House leadership, signaling a vote should actually follow – possibly even in time for the July 4 Congressional recess. In any case, some resolution to the matter should be achieved before September 30 when our current short-term extension will expire.

Unsurprisingly, this year’s farm bill borrows heavily from proposals that the House and Senate Agriculture Committees prepared last year.And this is a big week for the 2013 Farm Bill as the respective committee’s draft markups will happen in the Senate at 10:00 AM today (Tuesday, May 14 ) and in the House at 10:00 AM tomorrow, (Wednesday, May 16). (Anyone else plan to settle in for some CSPAN?)

In a continuing bit of déjà vu, the biggest hurdle to passing a bill will likely be reaching agreement on the depth of cuts to be made to SNAP. Just like last year, Republicans are advocating for deep budget cuts to the food assistance program, which at $79 billion continues to be the biggest chunk of the Department of Agriculture’s budget.

So far, the House Agriculture Committee’s first 2013 draft includes 25 percent more reductions in funding for SNAP (food stamps) than last year. House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) has members seeking even deeper cuts or increased work requirements for those who receive SNAP benefits for more than three months. With a program to ease the transition from direct cash subsidies to producers, Lucas & Co have thrown a bone to powerful Southern cotton interests as they propose to continue cash subsidies to the producers for another two years. This is a good draft if you’re a big commodities producer; not so much if you’re relying on SNAP to put food on your table.

On the Senate side, Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) released a draft bill last week which proposes new crop insurance and price-based supports (eliminating direct payments to farmers) and savings on SNAP via restricting eligibility. Those price-based supports (or “adverse market payment program”) are an olive branch to big producers of rice and peanuts, giving them price protection they wanted (remember that unlike corn, rice and peanuts tend to have the same yields annually; what affects producers' livelihood is the price their commodities go for in the market.) Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) has said that she will oppose any SNAP cuts (including those in the Senate’s draft) on the floor, and has already begun gathering support.

In a continuing bit of déjà vu, the biggest hurdle to passing a bill will likely be reaching agreement on the depth of cuts to be made to SNAP. Just like last year, Republicans are advocating for deep budget cuts to the food assistance program, which at $79 billion continues to be the biggest chunk of the Department of Agriculture’s budget. House Republicans are now proposing cuts of around $20 billion; the Democrats propose $4 billion. Divisions not only run along party lines, but between representatives of urban and rural districts. (And are not necessarily universal; Senator Thad Cochran, R-MS supports SNAP as “it is a popular program in his state.”) Given the continued drive for budget reduction and austerity politics, as well as news from the Congressional Budget Office that the Democrats’ plan in 2012 would have only saved about $13 billion rather than $23 billion, listen for even more rancor (if possible) around the question of how deep to make the cuts.

This week, as each markup progresses, we expect that the bill drafts will be voted out of committee and sent to the Senate and House floors, respectively, for debates among all of the members on amendments. It’s during those floor debates (and plenty of offline negotiations) that the exact amount of SNAP cuts will likely be hashed out.

For More Analysis and Information About the 2013 Farm Bill, see these sites:

Food First Backgrounder from Christopher Cook: "Farm Bill Fiasco: What Next for the Food Movement?"

Environmental Working Group: Worth Protecting (2013 Farm Bill site)

Food & Water Watch farm bill coverage with Patty Lovera

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition 2013 Farm Bill coverage

And for Ecocentric’s 2012 Farm Bill coverage, see here for an archive of our previous posts.

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