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We Have a Farm Bill

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We have a farm bill — finally.

The previous farm bill (The Agricultural Act of 2014) expired on Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. Although this left several agricultural, environmental, conservation, and nutrition programs in limbo, they were kept alive through continuing appropriations bills.

Every five years, Congress passes a farm bill that sets national agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and forestry policy and appropriates money for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (H.R.2) “amends and extends major programs for income support, food and nutrition, land conservation, trade promotion, rural development, research, forestry, horticulture, and other miscellaneous programs administered by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) for five years through 2023.”

The Act was originally passed by the House on June 21 by a vote of 213–211. It passed the Senate with an amendment on June 28 by a vote of 86–11. A conference committee was appointed soon afterward, but no further action was taken until last month. On December 11, the Senate passed the final version of H.R.2 by a vote of 87–13. On December 12, the House passed the final version by a vote of 369–47. Donald Trump signed the bill into law (PL 115-334) on December 20.

“We have to take care of our farmers and ranchers, and we will take care of them,” said Trump said at the bill signing ceremony, after which he praised congressional Democrats for their hard work on the bill. “This gives a peace of mind to our producers here who have to make plans for 2019,” remarked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue after the bill’s passage. “It was a good bipartisan vote in Congress — and while we didn’t get everything that we had hoped to get in the bill, it’s a very stable bill for agriculture and for the consumers, as well,” he added.

So we have a farm bill — an $867-billion farm bill.

The 529-page farm bill has eleven titles: I. Commodities, II. Conservation, III. Trade, IV. Nutrition, V. Credit, VI. Rural Development, VII. Research, Extension, and Related Matters, VIII. Forestry, IX. Horticulture, X. Crop Insurance, XI. Miscellaneous.

As reported by Edwin Feulner, a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, “Last year, nearly 400 entities including farmers, corporations, and agri-businesses received between $1 million and $9.9 million each in farm subsidies.” He terms farm subsidies “one of the nation’s largest corporate welfare programs.”

But the most expensive part of the farm bill is not the subsidies it provides to farmers. The most expensive title is Title IV. Nutrition. It accounts for about 80 percent of the farm bill’s forecasted spending. And where does the majority of Nutrition funding go? It goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.

Recipients of SNAP benefits receive a deposit on an EBT card each month that can be used only for prepackaged food items. SNAP “offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities” and is “the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net.” Benefits differ by state. There is no limit to how long one can receive food stamps as long as there are children in the household, subject to renewal every six months. During fiscal year 2018, the average monthly benefit was $126.32 per person and $252.55 per household.

SNAP is administered by the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but is operated by the 50 states. The USDA “is made up of 29 agencies and offices with nearly 100,000 employees who serve the American people at more than 4,500 locations across the country and abroad.” It provides “leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management.” Its vision is “to provide economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve our Nation’s natural resources through conservation, restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.” The USDA is one of the oldest of the federal government’s fifteen departments, having been established under Abraham Lincoln in 1862. But the USDA is also one of the most unconstitutional of the federal government’s fifteen departments.

Federal departments such as the Department of Commerce can at least try to justify their existence by appealing to the two places in Article I of the Constitution where it mentions Congress’s regulating commerce (Sec.8, Para. 3 and Sec. 9, Para. 6).

But like the departments of Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Labor, the Department of Agriculture cannot be justified in any way by the Constitution.

The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have anything to do with agriculture. No department, no agencies, no research, no food stamps, no WIC program, no subsidies, no loans, no guarantees, no price supports, no food distribution, no inspections, no nutrition guidelines, no aid, no relief, no assistance, no breakfast programs, no lunch programs, no educational materials, no instructional videos, no dissemination of information.

There is nothing special about agriculture that necessitates that the federal government should subsidize it. Farming is an occupation fraught with risks and uncertainties just as any other business faces. And it is not the proper role of government to feed anyone or take money from some Americans and give it to other Americans in the form of food stamps. All charity should be private and voluntary.

The passage of the new farm bill also shows us the true nature of the Republicans in Congress — no better than the Democrats. Republicans claim to be the party of the Constitution. They claim to be for limited government and fiscal conservatism. Yet the vast majority of Republicans in both Houses of Congress voted in favor of the new farm bill.

Yes, we have a farm bill. But is a farm bill necessary? Is a farm bill constitutional? Is a farm bill a legitimate purpose of government? Those are the questions about the farm bill that should be asked.

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