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Previewing the House Farm Bill Debate

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If you're one of those types who love watching a good, old-fashioned congressional fight, man oh man, have you got a week of excitement ahead of you. So grab yourself some popcorn, a few ice-cold beverages, locate C-SPAN on your cable provider, and find yourself a nice spot on the couch: It's 2013 Farm Bill Week!

Last Monday, the Senate version of the Farm Bill, determining how the country's food programs are organized and maintained over the next five years, was passed in a non-contentious 66 to 27 vote. This week, it's the House's turn to go through their own massive bill. If passed, the two bills will be reconciled down the road. However, as is the case these days with everything in the House, the legislative conversation is a mess of seething partisanship. Meaning, the debate we're getting this week is set to be a whole lot messier.

Among the key issues to be debated over the next few sessions:

The Great Food Stamp Debate

Surely the most important and, thusly, divisive part of the bill -- which makes sense, seeing as it takes up $743 billion of the proposed $940 billion total -- is the portion that deals with the SNAP program. The dividing lines over how much money should be allocated towards food stamps is essentially organized by party, with the newly-powerful Rand Paul-ian Tea Party libertarian folks looking to cut about $20.5 billion from the bill. Democrats, meanwhile, see the attacks on food stamps as a battle tinged with classism and racism, perhaps best exemplified by Louisiana Representative David Vitter's amendment that those convicted of murders or violent sexual acts should be allowed to apply for them. Also of note will be the discussion over what kinds of foods SNAP will be allowed to be used on, with snacks and sodas being the most contested.

Crop Insurance

The biggest change in this round of the Farm Bill has to do with farmer protection. Previously, if a farmer lost a crop due to unforeseen circumstances like a powerful hailstorm or a particularly dry season, they would simply get direct payments from the government. Those totaled roughly $5 billion per year and, in staying true to the byzantine structure of bureaucracy, were occasionally paid whether or not a farmer actually planted any crops. Under the new Farm Bill, the policy shifts to a "crop insurance" method wherein farmers buy into the program and receive funds if certain events cause their yields to be less than predicted. Estimates show that this new method will cost roughly $3.5 billion a year, which sounds better, but that estimate doesn't include the second, and more contentious, aspect of the insurance method...

Price Stabilization

As part of the new insurance-based policy, farmers will also be protected in the cases of crop prices dropping unexpectedly. Most notably, this will keep the price of milk and other items constant, rather than being dictated by the market. If the price goes up, farmers will be asked to increase their production. If the price goes down, they'll be asked to cut production. If prices can't be controlled that way, farmers will be compensated for the difference by the government. This is good news for the independent farmer, but arguments abound that the large agribusinesses are going to benefit the most from the new structure.

In addition, this addition to the farm subsidies program may actually cost more than the previous direct payment method:

[S]everal independent studies have shown that if crop prices drop, even quite modestly, American taxpayers will be shelling out far more for these new programs than the $5 billion in claimed savings for the elimination of the Direct Payments program. If crop prices shift towards longer-run historical levels, taxpayers could face an estimated $16 to $20 billion in new farm subsidy costs. That's a lot of money, and most of it would go to the wealthiest farmers, corporations and landowners in the farm sector.

Between free market proponents and anti-Big Farm activists, there's a lot to be debated regarding this one.

Everything Else

This House bill runs 1,198 pages, so there's all sorts of other miscellaneous things scattered throughout. Everything is up for grabs, from environmentally-based proposals to keep farmers from eroding soil, to promoting "greener" methods of crop production, to how we promote our crops overseas, to research grants for organic agriculture and farmers' markets, and much more. While this area constitutes a very small percentage of the money being spent in total, don't be surprised if a few aspects come under debate with both sides lobbing arguments about "unnecessary pork."

All in all, it's going to be one heck of a food fight. Stay tuned here at KCET this upcoming week for any and all Farm Bill 2013 news.

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