Three reforms for Farm Bill conferees to include

Now that fiscal crises are averted for the next three months, the Farm Bill is poised to regain national attention. On Thursday, President Obama called for Congress to pass a Farm Bill by the end of the year. Conferees may begin meeting as early as next week to hammer out the differences in the House- and Senate-passed versions, and they should seek spending reductions and substantive reforms to food and farm programs. If and when Farm Bill conferees send a conference report to the president’s desk, they should ensure that it includes the following three provisions.

First and foremost, conferees should keep the Farm Bill split in two by maintaining different authorization schedules for food and farm programs. Whereas the Senate-passed legislation keeps both components on the same five-year authorization schedule, the House-passed nutrition bill shifts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) authorization from five years to three years. Separating the Farm Bill is critical because will allow Congress to consider each component on its own merit.  This approach is long overdue and would lay the foundation for fundamental reform.

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Second, conferees should restrict categorical eligibility for SNAP, which would address the biggest driver of program spending growth. The House-passed bill restricted a loophole that allows people to automatically, or “categorically,” enroll for SNAP benefits based on their participation in other state government programs, even if they exceed the federal income requirements. According to the Congressional Budget Office, this provision in the House-passed bill would reduce spending on SNAP by $11.5 billion over the next decade. This would add safeguards for taxpayers while providing a basic social safety net for low income Americans who truly need it.

Third, Farm Bill conferees should fully repeal—without replacing—the antiquated direct payment program. Given our nation’s numerous fiscal problems, it’s simply unacceptable for the federal government to guarantee income in any sector of the economy. The House- and Senate-passed legislation both replace direct payments with another revenue guarantee program that will cost even more. Agriculture economists with the American Enterprise Institute estimate that the proposed replacement program will cost $8-14 billion per year, much more than the $5 billion per year the federal government currently spends on direct payments. In addition, the House-passed bill includes a carve-out for cotton producers, who will continue to receive direct payments.

Although the versions of the Farm Bill that came out from both chambers of Congress remain bloated spending bills, the aforementioned changes would set the stage for reform when the Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization in five years. Conferees should ensure that these provisions stay in.

Harbin Hanson is federal affairs manager for Americans for Prosperity.

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