In Case You Missed It: Congress Should Pass a Cost-Saving Farm Bill

The Hill
Special Report: Agriculture
By Chairman Frank Lucas - February 27, 2013

What piece of legislation would have saved taxpayers $35 billion, eliminated old and duplicative government programs, closed wasteful loopholes and provided regulatory relief for small businesses while giving certainty to an economic sector that has managed to be successful in the midst of economic darkness?

Not many would guess the legislation I just described is the farm bill that advanced out of the House Agriculture Committee last summer. But, then again, it was not a typical farm bill.

Last year, in a Congress where bipartisanship was the exception and not the rule, the Committee on Agriculture marked up a bill called the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act in a remarkable display of an open legislative process. The markup lasted more than 15 hours, with debate and consideration of nearly 100 amendments. Many new members felt the thrill of actually debating and legislating in a committee for the first time. The bill passed in a large bipartisan vote of 35-11.

Last year, in a Congress where there was much debate about cutting spending, but little progress in tackling the drivers of our debt, the Committee on Agriculture advanced a bill that cut government spending by more than $35 billion and improved agricultural programs to be more cost-effective and market-oriented. The FARRM Act reformed what is commonly referred to as the farm safety net by cutting more than $25 billion — or 30 percent — from traditional commodity programs. The reforms entailed ending benefits for farmers who no longer farm and ending benefits when the agriculture economy is doing well. The committee believes in providing a safety net, rather than providing payments regardless of market conditions. The bill also repealed and consolidated close to 100 programs.

Further, the committee did not avoid the tough task of examining all programs for reforms, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or what is commonly known as food stamps. SNAP serves a noble purpose to help the needy among us, but that does not mean it is beyond oversight and reform.

Our approach to reforming SNAP started with a basic, common-sense premise: if an individual qualifies for SNAP benefits, according to the eligibility requirements in the law, that individual will receive SNAP benefits.

Current law requires that an applicant must meet an asset and income test. We did not change those provisions. Rather, we ensured that states, which administer the program, cannot circumvent current law and endanger the integrity of the program. We ensured that those receiving assistance actually meet the eligibility requirements. If one believes we should expand eligibility requirements or increase SNAP benefits, then let us have that debate, but it is irresponsible to allow states to evade the law set by Congress.

Additionally, we closed a loophole to prevent states from sending households $1 checks through another government program in order to increase that household's SNAP benefit levels. We ended the practice of giving states bonuses for responsibly administering SNAP, which is their duty. We tightened restrictions to prevent lottery winners and traditional college students from participating in the program. And, we limited the Department of Agriculture from advertising SNAP on radio and television shows, such as soap operas.

Some say the reforms to SNAP were not enough; others say they went too far. The committee did what is too often criticized: we compromised.

This brings me to my final point: the FARRM Act was not a perfect bill — no bill ever is. But this was a significant step in the right direction that fulfilled the promises we made to the American people to have an open process, to eliminate government spending and to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse in government programs. The committee effort was just a step in the overall process of legislating. The next step would have been and should have been consideration on the House floor where, as a whole, we engage in spirited debate and make the final determination regarding any comprehensive legislation.

Moving forward, the committee will continue to look for ways to improve upon this common-sense, reform-minded and fiscally responsible bill. But, we cannot act alone. Faced with the decision of either passing a bill with significant savings or extending current policy without any, I hope this Congress will learn from the past and make the right and obvious choice.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.