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Editorial: Fighting waste in the farm bill

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 30, 2013 5:00 AM

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Last week, Gov. Terry Branstad sent a letter urging congressional leaders in Washington to act quickly to pass a new farm bill — legislation that has traditionally set funding for both agricultural programs and food stamps — before the current stopgap measure expires at the end of September.

“Quick resolution will allow [Congress] to seize the opportunity to enact needed farm-program reforms, gain real cost savings, improve the sustainability of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and provide long-term certainty for farm families and agricultural producers,” the letter said.

The Senate and the House have each passed its own version of the farm bill, and the latter is notable for excising SNAP — food stamps program — altogether. Such a cut does not necessarily mean that food stamps are at risk of being defunded, but the decision to break the bill into two parts has created political and regional animosity that threatens the passage of a new farm bill.

A farm bill that included funding for agricultural programs and food stamps appealed to rural and urban politicians alike and made passage of such legislation relatively easy. In this case, however, an inconsistent commitment to eliminating “wasteful” government spending on the part of House Republicans has wrecked that precedent.

A previous version of the House farm bill included $20.5 billion in cuts to SNAP, but that bill failed to pass. Many Democrats believed the cuts were too deep, many conservative Republicans believed that the cuts weren’t deep enough.

That conflict prompted Republican leaders to attempt to pass a farm bill without SNAP and save a more caustic debate about food stamps for later.

Republicans contended such cuts to food stamps were justified because the program is bloated and plagued by waste and fraud and should be scaled back accordingly.

Since 2008, the annual cost of SNAP has roughly doubled to about $80 billion per year. The cause of that hike was an increase in participation thanks to the economic recession as well as a temporary increase in benefits included in the 2009 economic-stimulus bill. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the cost of SNAP will begin to decline modestly as the economy continues to improve.

It is difficult to know exactly how much of that $80 billion is wasted, but a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests that SNAP is one of the nation’s most efficient public-benefit programs.

According to the report, SNAP’s overpayment rate is at an all-time low — only around 3 percent of SNAP money went to ineligible households or to eligible households in excess in 2011. Furthermore, state data suggest that a majority of overpayments are the product of governmental errors, not fraud.

Still, the House Republicans’ commitment to combating waste in the farm bill seems to focus mostly on SNAP. A look at some of the agricultural programs that were passed in the House’s scaled-back farm bill demonstrates the shallowness of their crusade against waste.

The House bill contains a number of taxpayer-funded benefits for the agricultural sector, which is performing quite well already. Among these provisions is a robust crop-insurance program in which the public pays a majority of the farmers’ premiums and insurance payouts, a remarkably Soviet set of protections for the sugar industry, and higher price targets for crop subsidies that are already selling at fair market value.

A commitment to modest spending cuts that target waste is admirable, but directing such efforts at an important social-welfare program while allowing wasteful agricultural programs to remain on the books is shameful.

If Congress is truly intent on eliminating wasteful spending on the farm bill, it must look beyond SNAP and meaningfully scale back expensive agricultural subsidies.


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