Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., released a report yesterday illustrating the latest Republican hypocrisy. The report profiles 14 Republican congressmen who receive federal agriculture subsidies. Each member voted for the recently passed farm bill, which extended their subsidies (and in many cases, made the subsidies more generous) while for the first time in 50 years removing nutrition programs (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) from the overall legislative package.
To be fair, the House has promised to go back and address the nutrition side of the bill and the final bill will have the nutrition program reattached after conferencing with the Senate. But regardless of the ultimate outcome, Miller is correct. Prioritizing the extension of your own funds while looking to SNAP for spending cuts does amount to balancing the budget on the backs of the needy while preserving subsidies that flow to millionaires and large businesses.
While I would disagree greatly with Miller in that I do believe the nutrition programs need to be restructured, the point still holds that reforming agriculture programs should be a top priority for fiscally conservative Republicans. The agriculture portions of previous farm bills have consistently overrun CBO projections, and in the majority of programs, benefits accrue disproportionately to the largest, most-profitable farms. Indeed, looking over the incomes for the 14 congressmen, none of them exactly fits the bill of an American family farmer in need of support to weather tougher times.
After the original farm bill failed in June, it was separated into two portions to give the House the opportunity to reform the agriculture and nutrition programs separately; instead, the House simply shoved the agriculture portion through on a closed rule, refusing to hear any of the good amendments left out of the original farm bill debate.
House Republicans defended the move by arguing that the agriculture section had already been amended. By that logic, so has the food stamp portion. The truth is simply that they wanted to get a bill passed, and for these fourteen congressmen, an unchanged bill was priority. Looking over the amendments debated in the original farm bill debate, 13 of the 14 congressman targeted in the Miller report voted against four of the most sweeping reforms. Only Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R.-Ind., voted in favor of two of the four.
While the Miller report takes the stance that these votes were motivated mostly by the members’ pocketbooks, a recent study found constituent interest more closely correlated with votes in favor of agriculture supports. However, many of the members Miller profiles also represent a large number of constituents receiving food stamps, lending truth to the idea that these members are at least preferring one portion of their constituency over another.
It isn’t too late for Republicans to make meaningful changes to the farm-only bill. As Stutzman noted in a recent speech at the Heritage Foundation, crop insurance is the main safety net for farmers now and is too open-ended, with some agribusinesses receiving more than $1 million in annual support. Many good ideas exist for altering the program, and legislative language is ready to go for several of them. The bill has yet to go to conference with the Senate, and given the piecemeal nature of the upcoming conference, adding more reform to the mix can’t really hurt and would be a welcome change.
But the degree of willingness to do this is up for debate. The Miller report acknowledges that it likely underestimates the number of Republicans who receive agriculture subsidies, as crop insurance support isn’t transparent. We do know from the Heritage speech that Stutzman receives them. The question is, then, can those Republicans vote against their interests to cut spending? Given today’s revelation that even 52% of GOP members and conservative-leaning independents think the party is headed in the wrong direction, let’s hope that they can.