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Congress Fails on Food Stamps with Little Fanfare

Andrew Burton/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The legislature’s failure to pass a farm bill in 2013 “serves as a poster child for congressional dysfunction,” Norm Ornstein inveighed in the National Journal Thursday. Ornstein helpfully traced the origins of the odd couple that is the bill: Its bloated farm subsidies are tied to the essential food stamps program because of the historic friendship that developed in the early 1970s between George McGovern and Bob Dole. Though Ornstein allows that the alliance at the heart of the farm bill was always “at best imperfect,“ he allows himself a moment to bask in the glow of a lost era:

I saw McGovern and Dole walking arm in arm in the Old Senate Office Building. They forged a relationship that blossomed into a 40-year-plus friendship, based on their common interest in dealing with food issues. Dole, representing his Kansas farmers, embraced the food-stamp program on their behalf, a way to deal with farm surpluses. McGovern, with a deep passion to alleviate hunger in America, embraced a system of price supports that gave money to agribusinesses for not planting crops as a way to fund the food-stamp program. Their alliance reflected a more than five-decade relationship between rural and urban lawmakers that made farm bills possible, a kind of model for how Congress, through compromises and trade-offs, can find majorities for legislation that primarily benefits minorities or narrower interests. 

Earlier this fall, I compared the philosophy embedded in Republican’s derision of the farm bill to the 47 percent bombshell that imploded Mitt Romney’s campaign. They suggest the same callous message, that poverty is the fault of the people in it. But Congress’s can kicking hasn’t caused much of a stir. Most of the angst this December has been directed at a possible “dairy cliff”—if the bill expires, the law of the land will revert to the 1949 Agricultural Act, under which milk prices could spike to $7 or $8 a gallon. As Ornstein suggests, this is doubtless in part because “the same day the farm conference came a cropper, we got a mini budget deal, creating a brief feel-good moment, a sense that maybe compromise is still possible.” This morning, The New York Times ran a story, buried deep in the New York edition, titled “House Passes Budget Pact and Military Abuse Protections, but Not Farm Bill.”

As my colleague Jonathan Cohn has written, the food stamps program, or SNAP, “seems awfully good at what it is supposed to do: keep low-income people from going hungry or struggling even more financially”:

In 2011, according to the [Center on Budget and Policy Priority’s] analysis, "SNAP kept about 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2011, including about 2.1 million children. SNAP also lifted 1.5 million children out of deep poverty (defined as 50 percent of the poverty line) in 2011, more than any other government assistance program." Research by Kathryn Edin from Harvard and Luke Shaefer at the University of Michigan, two of the country’s leading scholars of poverty, has found that SNAP alone significantly reduces the number of households with children living on $2 a day. And new research from Shaefer, collaborating with Italo Gutierrez, suggests that SNAP significantly reduces the likelihood that low-income families will fall behind on other expenses, like rent and utilities.

The question now is whether the Senate will agree with the House of Representatives’ decision to pass a one-month extension of the farm bill, pushing expiration to January 31. "Pass the extension ... and we on the Agriculture Committee will take care of our business in January," Frank Lucas, the committee chairman, told Reuters. He added that House and Senate negotiators were making "incredible" progress on a new draft. But SNAP dependents have every reason to fear what that draft will look like. As Mother Jones has reported, Steve Southerland, one of the Republicans on the committee, is an anti-food stamps crusader of unprecedented vitriol. “The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me,” Southerland told The Washington Post, which profiled him in September. “This is a defining moral issue of our time." On that last, at least, his constituents who rely on the program may agree.