By Robert Pore
While U.S. Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., expresses frustration that a new Farm Bill wasn't passed during the last session of Congress, he expects the new Congress to approve one.
But a new Farm Bill will face new funding realities as Congress tackles the debt ceiling and spending cuts needed to address the growing federal debt, which has exceeded $16 trillion.
"I am disappointed that we didn't get a five-year bill," Smith said. "At least we did get an extension that does get us through this next growing season."
Smith, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, said the House Agriculture Committee narrowly passed a new Farm Bill because "there were some liberal Democrats and some conservative Republicans both voting no."
"That made it more difficult to pass on the floor of the House," he said. "I think, simply, the votes were not there for the committee version of the House ag committee's Farm Bill."
To address that problem, Smith said, "we need to utilize what they call 'regular order.' The Senate works its will. The House needs to work its will beyond just the committee and needs to pass something in the full House to get to conference committee. That is where the House and the Senate come together and work something out."
Smith said that final product will "not be perfect or get a unanimous vote, but history shows it works. We did that last summer with the ag appropriations bill. It is a heavy lift, but it should be."
Nearly 80 percent of the Farm Bill goes to nutritional programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps low-income families buy food. In the Senate's 10-year Farm Bill spending plan of $969 billion, $768 billion went to nutritional programs, with the rest going to crop insurance, conservation, commodity programs and everything else.
When debating a Farm Bill, Smith said, the nutrition programs will have to take the deepest cuts.
"The food stamp program is such a dominant part of the Farm Bill," Smith said. "It certainly points to the need for reform."
Smith said the Senate is likely to pass a new Farm Bill similar to the one it approved last year.
"But on the House side, there is a better understanding of the need for a product that can pass the full House," he said.
Smith said any legislation Congress passes this year will have to take into consideration the debt ceiling. Lawmakers will have to determine how much spending needs to be cut and how much the government can borrow.
Smith said the Farm Bill represents only 2 percent of the government's discretionary spending.
"The debt ceiling issue and the need to address spending exist in the mandatory spending side with entitlements," he said.
If lawmakers don't reform nutritional programs, such as food stamps, Smith said, those costs could go up to more than $1 trillion in the next 10 years.
"We are at about $80 billion per year with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) compared to the beginning of the (second) Bush administration, when it was at $18 billion," he said. "But we have opened up the qualifications so wide that we have seen that grow, and that is what needs to be reformed."
Much of the steep growth in SNAP spending came during the recession, around 2007, as many more families lost their jobs and fell under the government's poverty line. Many economists say that SNAP is not contributing to the nation's long-term fiscal problems as increases in SNAP are expected to be temporary. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that SNAP enrollment will fall in coming years as the economy recovers. By 2022, SNAP spending is expected to return nearly to pre-recession levels as a share of gross domestic product.
The 2009 Recovery Act also increased SNAP benefits as a form of economic stimulus. According to National Academy of Science measures of poverty, which count SNAP as income, SNAP kept about 4 million people out of poverty in 2010 and lessened the severity of poverty for millions of others.
Food stamp spending was low when President George W. Bush was elected to his first term and there was a robust economy. Smith said a high priority is to get the economy growing again and lower unemployment rates so there is less need for government assistance.
To help make the economy robust again, Smith said, lawmakers must also begin to reform the nation's tax code.
"History shows that simplifying our tax code will be good for our economy," Smith said. "How we can build our economy is with fixing our tax policy. There is consensus and recognition that our tax policy is broken."