The US Congress, its approval rating still near all-time lows, is reinforcing its own record of stupefyingly short-sighted lawmaking with what may be the most harmful piece of economic legislation in America in years: the $1tn 2013 farm bill.
It should be called the 2012 farm bill – or, officially, the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 – because the habitually sluggish group of lawmakers in Washington were too busy in 2012 to pass it. Campaigning for office and ginning up the fake fiscal cliff crisis occupied a lot of time, so lawmakers passed an extension of the $650bn 2008 farm bill for another year. That set an expiration date of September 30 this year. The delayed timing, however, is the least of the problems with it.
As members of Congress have negotiated over various amendments and riders to the bill, they’ve set an impressively consistent trend: they mix good ideas and bad ideas and combine them to create the absolutely worst possible policies. Elements of the farm bill, as it stands, will cut food stamps to the poor and the previously incarcerated, thus increasing poverty and possibly crime; add to the growing obesity crisis by encouraging chemical sugar substitutes; push genetically modified food at the expense of public health with the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act“; and support factory farming at the expense of sustainable food production with abusive crop subsidies.
That’s quite a lot of damage to wreak with a single law, but this Congress certainly seems up to the challenge.
The farm bill will set US food policy for 2014 to 2023, encompassing everything from agriculture to food stamps. The food stamps show the worst decision-making. Conservatives are apparently annoyed that Americans are using more food stamps. That much is true. Food stamp usage has grown by at least 70% since the financial crisis in 2008, with a record 47.8 million people relying on food stamps in order to afford their weekly grocery bills. This is costing the government $74.6bn.
Members of Congress – whose average pay is $174,000 a year are outraged by this. As they enjoy over $4.6bn in subsidized healthcare, travel and other government perks subsidized by taxpayers, these lawmakers bemoan the waste of government spending on the poor. They pledge fiscal discipline – pinching every taxpayer penny – on the backs of people living below the poverty level, as the lawmakers themselves count on up to $1.2bn in retirement benefits.
So it is that these beacons to financial restraint, surrounded by a $6bn bubble of government-subsidized comfort, have succeeded in cutting food stamp help to the poor by about $20.5bn in this bill. They’ve also planned to eliminate food stamps – for life – for anyone who was ever convicted of a crime, which will disproportionately hurt the urban poor (pdf). Some lawmakers argued the SNAP, or food stamp, program should be cut because of the trend of food stamp users buying things like energy drinks – a trend that continues, not incidentally, due to the low availability of fresh and healthy food in poor areas.