Q&A: What’s in the farm bill? At nearly $1 trillion, something for everyone

WASHINGTON – The nearly 1,000-page compromise farm bill is designed to have something for everyone. There’s more money for crop insurance popular in the Midwest, higher peanut and rice subsidies for Southern farmers and the renewal of federal land payments for Western states.

The bill also sets policy for the almost $80 billion-a-year food stamp program, which has doubled in cost in the last five years. Conservatives wanted to cut the program by as much as 5 per cent, but the bill would only trim the program by $800 million a year, or 1 per cent.

Some questions and answers about the farm bill and its politics:

Q: What is the farm bill?

A: It’s a wide-ranging bill, usually written every five years, that sets policy for government farm subsidies and some of the country’s nutrition programs, including food stamps. It also sets dollar levels for the Agriculture Department and subsidizes farmers and rural communities for a multitude of things — from protecting environmentally sensitive land to international food aid to rural communications services.

Q: How much does it cost?

A: The Congressional Budget Office estimates that farm and nutrition programs will cost almost a trillion dollars over the next 10 years. Broken down by year, the bill is expected to cost around $96 billion annually.

Q: Where does most of that money go?

A: Almost 80 per cent of the money will go to food stamps for the needy — now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. It has more than doubled in cost since 2008 due to the economic downturn, fluctuating food prices and eligibility requirements loosened in the 2009 economic stimulus bill. In 2013, an average of 47.6 million people used SNAP at a cost of $79.6 billion. Around 15 per cent of the money in the farm bill is designated for farm subsidies and crop insurance subsidies. The rest would go to conservation, rural development, renewable energy and other farm programs.

Q: Where’s the support in Congress?

A: The farm bill has always passed with the support of a coalition of rural lawmakers interested in farm programs and urban lawmakers with high numbers of voters in their districts on food stamps. Several decades ago, lawmakers combined nutrition programs with agricultural supports in the farm bill to gain those urban votes. The number of rural lawmakers has dwindled in recent years, though, and the escalating cost of food stamps threatened the bill this time around as conservatives say the SNAP program has spiraled out of control and needs to be cut.

Q: How did they decide on a cut of $800 million a year?

A: It was a compromise between the Senate bill, which would have cut $400 million a year, and the House bill, which would have cut $4 billion a year. The White House had threatened to veto the House bill. The money would come from ending the practice in some states of giving recipients a minimal amount of heating assistance in order to trigger higher food stamp benefits. Some critics see that as an abuse of the system.

Q: Who is opposing it?

A: Conservatives have said the food stamp cuts aren’t high enough and liberals have said they are too high. Some conservatives also have criticized the amount of farm subsidies in the bill, and the groups Club for Growth and Heritage Action have said they will use it against Republicans who vote for it in primary campaigns.

Q: So will the House pass the bill?

A: House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., says he thinks it will pass. The bill is designed to help agriculture and rural communities across the country and supporters hope the food stamp cut is low enough to draw a good number of Democratic votes. But the House defeated an earlier version of the bill in June when conservatives revolted over the food stamp spending, so the outcome is never certain.

Q: What about the Senate?

A: The Senate vote is more predictable. That chamber passed its version of the farm bill with a strong bipartisan majority last summer and the food stamp cuts are closer to the Senate bill.

Q: What about farm subsidies?

A: The bill would eliminate subsidies called direct payments, which cost about $4.5 billion a year and are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. But it uses some of those savings to create new farm subsidies and expand crop insurance.

Q: Why does the government subsidize farmers?

A: Farm-state lawmakers have traditionally argued that farmers need a government safety net because agriculture is a tough, unpredictable industry and the nation’s food supply is dependent on family farms staying in business. Critics say too much of the money goes to wealthy farmers and large, corporate agribusinesses.

Q: Are there overall savings in the bill?

A: The bill would save around $1.65 billion annually overall, according to a Congressional Budget Office document released Tuesday. The amount is less than the $2.3 annually the agriculture committees originally projected the bill would save; an aide to Lucas said the difference was due to how they calculated budget savings from recent automatic across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration.

Lucas and his Senate counterpart, Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, have touted the savings in trying to sell the bill to colleagues.


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