Changing Coalitions and the 2014 Farm Bill

JURIST Guest Columnist Laurie Ristino of the Vermont Law School argues that an array of environmental, economic and political factors have broken down the traditional coalition behind the farm bills' passage in the past, but in its wake shifting policy objectives and broader interest in the bill have emerged that promise to substantially alter the nature of the bill, whether for better or worse remains to be seen ...
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Ending a tortuous legislative journey, President Obama recently signed into law the Agricultural Act of 2014 [PDF], popularly known as the farm bill. At nearly a thousand pages and costing an estimated $956 billion over the next decade, this omnibus legislation fundamentally impacts American life. The farm bill's twelve titles cover policy areas ranging from agricultural commodities to energy. Once the legislative province of certain lawmakers, industry groups and environmental non-profits, a broader spectrum of interest groups have now taken note of the farm bill's importance and the rare opportunity it presents to fund new programs and influence policy.

There are many policy changes reflected in the 2014 farm bill: shifting of farmer benefits from commodity payments to crop insurance; reduced benefits to the nation's poor under the Supplemental Food and Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—previously known as "food stamps"—and consolidation of conservation programs with reduced funding, are just a few examples. But, arguably, the most compelling aspect of this farm bill process was its difficult road to passage. The traditional coalition of farm state and urban lawmakers that pushed previous farm bills past the legislative finish line in the past has broken down. The erosion of the traditional coalition has occurred at a time when broader interest in the farm bill has emerged. These two factors, together, signal a watershed change in farm bill history, which could greatly impact future farm bill programs and priorities.

Why discuss the next farm bill now? The fact of the matter is that this omnibus legislation is so important that strategy for the next farm bill is already in the works in many corners. What exactly is at stake and why should we care? I will give an overview of farm bill policies that were hotly debated during the 2014 farm bill process as likely areas that will be revisited during the next farm bill. These policies were concentrated in the three biggest ticket items in the farm bill: commodities (title I), conservation (title II) and nutrition (title IV).

Since the dust bowl, Congress has struggled, with mixed results, to develop an effective farm safety net, which would protect farmers from price volatility, over production, and crop failure. The 2008 farm bill [PDF] safety net focused resources on commodity payments to farmers. Direct payments, however, increasingly came under fire as wasteful and disproportionately benefiting the largest producers. Given this and the need to find cost savings, Congress eliminated direct commodity payments and shifted the farm safety net to crop insurance (title XI) in the 2014 farm bill.

Crop insurance is heavily subsidized by taxpayers at approximately 60 percent of the cost of insurance premiums. Originally authorized in the 1930s, federal crop insurance had traditionally low enrollment. However, over the last two decades, enrollment has skyrocketed with increased federal subsidies and coverage. Federal spending on crop insurance has also increased dramatically due to higher crop prices and extreme weather events. For example, crop insurance spending [PDF] reached a high of $14 billion in 2012 when crops failed due to drought. Consequently, one important question is whether shifting the safety net to crop insurance will result in a net savings as climate change-driven weather events intensify. Another question is whether expanded crop insurance coverage will result in perverse incentives to producers to adopt riskier and environmentally harmful planting practices such as breaking-out fragile lands in order to increase production.

A critical debate during the 2014 farm bill was whether crop insurance benefits would be coupled with soil and wetland conservation compliance (title II). In the 2008 farm bill, in order to qualify for commodity payments, producers were required to comply with these soil and wetland conservation policies—popularly known as Sodbuster and Swampbuster. In the end, Congress adopted the Senate's proposal to link conservation compliance to crop insurance. This was a critical victory for the environment. Without such a requirement, years of public investment to reduce soil erosion and prevent wetland conversion would have been undermined. Yet, it remains to be seen whether the shifting of the farm safety net to the crop insurance program will have other, unintended environmental consequences.

Another area of contentious debate was how much to reduce SNAP spending, which is nearly 80 percent of the cost of the farm bill. It was this debate that contributed significantly to the delay in passing the omnibus legislation. The House proposed to reduce SNAP spending by $39 billion while the Senate's proposal would have trimmed the program by $4 billion. Ultimately [PDF], the conferees agreed upon $8 billion in reduced spending, avoiding deep cuts. SNAP is our most important anti-hunger program, helping feed 47 million low-income Americans last year. Over 70 percent of SNAP participants are comprised of families with children. The average SNAP benefit in 2013 was $133 per recipient or about $4.45 a day. In 2014, the average benefit is estimated to drop below $130. The fractious SNAP debate embodied the new farm bill politics and death of the Carter-era rural-urban coalition.

There were subtler changes to this farm bill as well, reflecting the opportunity that the farm bill presents to germinate progressive programs and policies. In particular, support for local, regional and diversified food systems programs was doubled to over $500 million. This is still a drop in the bucket given total farm bill outlays, but this funding gain is an important acknowledgment of consumer demand for alternatives to the conventional agriculture. For example, the farm bill authorizes the development of new risk management products for diversified and organic farms. In addition, the farm bill includes increased funding for programs supporting local, diversified food systems, including direct marketing and cost share for organic certification.

Americans are increasingly concerned with what they eat and how it is produced. As a consequence, there is greater interest in the farm bill policies that shape American food and farming. Similarly, environmental groups are becoming more engaged in the farm bill because of the enormous environmental impacts of agriculture and the potential of the farm bill to ameliorate some of those harms through the conservation title. It's a whole new ball game for the farm bill. The question is whether a new coalition emerges that is able to produce a farm bill that better balances limited financial and natural resources against the demand for food and fiber.


Laurie Ristino is Director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems and associate professor of law at the Vermont Law School. Professor Ristino previously worked at the United States Department of Agriculture as senior counsel with the Office of the General Counsel. Professor Ristino is also an expert on the conservation title (title II) of the farm bill, and advised on the implementation of the 2002 and 2008 farm bills. She also serves as editor and columnist for the American Bar Association's Natural Resources & Environment magazine.

Suggested Citation: Laurie Ristino, Changing Coalitions and the 2014 Farm Bill, JURIST - Forum, Feb. 27, 2014, http://jurist.org/forum/2014/02/laurie-ristino-farm-bill.php


This article was prepared for publication by Kenneth Hall, assistant editor for JURIST's Academic Commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at academiccommentary@jurist.org

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