WASHINGTON — For several months, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees each have been holding hearings to gain input for the budget and framework of the 2023 farm bill. Congress has until Sept. 30 to finalize, vote upon and send this year’s bill to the president’s desk for signing into law, but a first draft has yet to officially materialize. And while this year’s negotiations do not seem as contentious as previous farm bills — the 2012 farm bill, for instance, did not pass both chambers of Congress until 2014 — there are certain issues slowing its progress.
An omnibus law renewing every five years since 1933, the farm bill is composed of 12 titles authorizing congressional and public funding for certain agricultural and food programs, including crop insurance, nutrition programs, farm resource conservation and many others.
At the center of negotiations is the bill’s budget, currently on track to making the 2023 farm bill the most expensive edition to date. In May, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected this year’s farm bill would cost $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years, a sum 73% higher than the budget passed for the previous farm bill in 2018. More than 80% of the budget is earmarked for the nutrition title, leaving only about $300 billion for the titular farm and other agriculture-related programs. According to the CBO, this increase will dedicate more dollars to the bill’s nutrition programs than the past two decades combined and was primarily a result of higher enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP), previously known as the Food Stamps Program, during the pandemic.
But with the recent passing of the bipartisan debt ceiling agreement, Congress has agreed to boost the work requirement age limit for SNAP-eligible adults from 49 to 54 with exemptions for veterans, homeless and young adults who have been recently emancipated from foster care. This requirement stipulates that individuals up to 54 years of age who are able-bodied and live without dependents must work a minimum of 20 hours per week or participate in work training or education programs to receive SNAP benefits. While this agreement has wrangled back some revenue from the farm bill’s massive budget, other lawmakers are hoping to squeeze back more dollars from the nutrition title. Some even have suggested removing the title entirely, which was first added to the farm bill in 1973, but that notion has been consistently and widely rejected by other members.
With four out of every five farm bill dollars assigned to nutrition programs, delegates from both sides of Congress have been eager to assess this fiscally burdensome section of the bill. These intentions became even more pronounced after the Food and Nutrition Service, the agency within the US Department of Agriculture responsible for administering the federally backed nutrition programs featured in the farm bill, released a report on June 30 showing the national SNAP fiscal year 2022 payment error rates rose 57% from 2019. Data were not collected in 2020 and 2021. The annualized sum of overpayments and underpayments, error rates measure how accurately states are managing their SNAP benefits.
In response to the report, House Agricultural Committee Chairperson Glenn “GT” Thompson, ranking member Representative David Scott, along with Senate Agricultural Committee Chairperson Debbie Stabenow and ranking member Senator John Boozman, issued the following statement:
“The pandemic caused new challenges for USDA and states alike, who took measures to ensure access to SNAP. However, the national error rate as reported today is unacceptable and threatens the integrity of the program. We urge governors and administrators to promptly establish corrective action plans and continue to work with USDA to address the root causes of these errors to improve their program operations, remain accountable to the taxpayer, and most importantly, ensure that benefits are targeted to the people who are the most in need.”
At a Feb. 16 Senate hearing, committee members challenged staff administrators from the Food and Nutrition Services agency to explain their justifications for fiscally expanding nutrition programs.
“In February 2020, we had a certain number of people on food stamps and then we had to intervene and spend a heck of a lot of money for the pandemic, so I assume if you do something because you have a pandemic and it’s an emergency, then when that emergency is over, you go back to what’s normal and normal would be February 2020 plus inflation plus the number of people that have increased in population,” Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa posed to Stacy Dean, undersecretary for food and nutrition service at the USDA. “And that figure that came out of the budget committee is nothing similar to that. So, the pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to ramp up federal spending.”
Ms. Dean responded, “We do expect that SNAP will return back to pre-pandemic levels as we see a response to our stronger economy, but that takes longer in lower income households since they’re often first fired and last hired individuals. When the economy recovers, it doesn’t include everyone equally.”
Ms. Dean explained the increase in the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) budget, which is used to determine the amount of SNAP benefits given to individuals to cover food costs, was also behind the budget leap. But she said this increase was a directive from the 2018 farm bill as the plan, which provides information on how consumers prepare food and the actual costs of food, had not been revised in over 45 years.
“We pursued our update endeavor of the Thrifty Food Plan at Congress’s direction, and it was a robust and data-driven endeavor, and it resulted in increasing SNAP benefits by 40¢ per person per meal,” Ms. Dean said. “And we plan to reevaluate the TFP every five years.”
Concurrent with the arguments for sustaining the budget bump in nutrition programs is the plea from agricultural producers to consider strengthening current farm safety net programs and other agricultural risk management tools. Fortifying these farm-focused titles has been the stated priority of several agriculture committee officials. Even Mr. Boozman said he would not vote on a farm bill that did not increase reference prices for commodity risk management programs as they have not been updated since 2012.
“We ask Congress to make a good program better,” said Brent Cheyne, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers in Klamath Falls, Ore., at the May 2 US Senate subcommittee hearing to discuss commodity programs, credit and crop insurance. Mr. Cheyne along with other panelists said the current coverage set by the 2018 farm bill was too limited to withstand recent challenges brought about by COVID-related supply chain disruptions, trade disputes with the Chinese government, market volatility stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, severe climate impacts and stubborn inflation.
“We need to recognize what it really costs to grow crops,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “On my farm this year I paid 300% more for nitrogen than I did last year. Who can absorb that in their budget and continue to operate? No one can.”
Mr. Duvall further stated the safety net and risk management tools provided in the farm bill had a greater purpose than just providing crop insurance.
“A country that cannot feed itself and its people is not secure, so a strong farm policy that supports a strong food supply truly is part of a smart national security strategy,” he said.
“According to USDA, 50% of farms have negative farm income,” said Minnesota Senator Tina Smith, chairperson for the agriculture, nutrition and forestry subcommittee. “Farmers, ranchers, dairy farmers, poultry and livestock producers are at the center of our economy, our food system, and our national security, and there is nothing more important to our country than a stable, secure, healthy food supply. And that means we need stable, secure producers that have the tools you need to weather the ups and downs of agriculture.”
In a recent letter sent to Congress, nearly 100 food and farmworker groups implored lawmakers to include legislation within the next farm bill that would not only protect the farm and farm owners but also its laborers.
“The next farm bill is an opportunity for Congress to ensure the safety and resilience of the food supply chain by protecting and supporting the people who plant, harvest, process, transport, sell and serve our food, as well as those who administer our food programs,” the June 9 letter stated.
While the battle for 2023 farm bill dollars moves toward the finish line in both chambers of Congress, Mr. Thompson earlier this year put the budget for the bill into perspective:
“All mandatory spending within it constitutes less than 2% of all federal spending,” he said. “When you drill down further, the farm safety net — commodity programs and crop insurance combined — make up just two-tenths of one percent of all federal spending. The return on this investment is incredible when you consider there’s 43 million jobs and over $7 trillion in economic activity attributed to the food and agriculture sector.”