Government Spending

This Year's Farm Bill Threatens To Be a Bigger Monster Than Ever

The massive piece of legislation embodies all that is wrong with American lawmaking.


In many ways, the farm bill up for consideration this year in Congress embodies all that is wrong with American lawmaking. It's a massive piece of legislation, combining unrelated matters to commit the U.S. government to spending mind-bending amounts of money at a single go. Passed roughly every five years, farm bills are less about legislating in any deliberative sense than they are about lawmakers packaging a trillion-plus dollars of goodies and committing taxpayers to fund them for years to come—and then doing it over and over again.

"Every five years, Congress passes legislation that sets national agriculture, nutrition, conservation, and forestry policy, commonly referred to as the 'Farm Bill'," the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry blandly notes. "The Committee formally kicked off its process for the 2023 Farm Bill with field hearings in both Michigan and Arkansas in 2022. Hearings continued in November and December of 2022, and will continue throughout the early parts of 2023."

Worse Than You Think

In the popular imagination, to the limited extent most people think about the issue, "farm bill" is largely synonymous with lingering New Deal-derived subsidies to farmers, and those are certainly in there. But there is also so much more.

"The farm bill funds a safety net for farmers through crop insurance and support for those growing key commodities, as well as nutrition programs run by the Agriculture Department, primarily food stamps," The Wall Street Journal's Kristina Peterson noted in November. That weird blend of programs is a result of the horse-trading "which since the 1970s has yoked support for farmers, including crop insurance, to funding for food stamps," she added.

That combination of food stamps and farming subsidies is the sort of unholy political deal that makes cutting government spending so challenging. That's not an accident.

A Match Made in Legislative Hell

"By 1973, the number of congressional districts dependent on farming were shrinking, but farm bills had grown in cost and frequency," Ryan Alexander, then-president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, pointed out in 2018 as the debate raged over the last farm bill. "How to maintain support for the shrinking farm constituency? By adding food assistance – at the time, food stamps – to the package. The shotgun marriage of farm aid and food stamps meant rural and urban members of Congress came together to get the farm bill over the finish line."

That not only means that the farm bill is an unhappy blend of unrelated matters jammed into a single compromise piece of legislation, but that its spending emphasis is not what you might expect.

"Although we think of the farm bill as a subsidy bill, it's actually heavily tilted toward nutrition—in the last (2018) farm bill, for example, more than 75 percent of federal outlays were actually for SNAP and related programs," the Cato Institute's Scott Lincicome observed in 2020.

SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as "food stamps," that subsidizes the food budgets of lower-income families (monthly benefits averaged $239 in 2018 and were temporarily increased during the pandemic). It now consumes the lion's share of spending in the so-called farm bill. But that doesn't mean that farmers are getting shortchanged in their take of other people's money. Oh, no, they do quite well themselves.

"This year, farmers (on net) will derive almost 40 percent of their income directly from the U.S. government," added Lincicome. "Given the duration and magnitude of federal support, there's perhaps no U.S. industry that has attracted more taxpayer subsidies—more consistently—than agribusiness."

This unhappy merger of interests means a lot of tax money being spread around.

A Trillion Here, a Trillion There…

"The 10-year baseline (FY2024-2033) for the Farm Bill is projected to be over $1.4 trillion, or roughly $140 billion each fiscal year," estimates Jonathan Coppess of the University of Illinois's farmdoc daily. "Food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) accounts for 85% of the projected Farm Bill spending. For farmers, the largest share is for crop insurance (7%)."

That's only an estimate since members of Congress are hashing out the details of the legislation. The House and Senate Agriculture committees are still holding hearings on the farm bill as are individual members of Congress. But those hearings are more likely to shift money around among various subsidy programs than to seriously curtail giveaways or reduce the overall cost of the final bill. After all, as Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, commented this week: "The Farm Bill is one of few remaining pieces of legislation steeped in consensus."

That's probably true. If Congress still agrees on anything, it's that money milked from taxpayers should be used to pay off supporters and purchase votes. And everything costs more these days, votes included.

"Increases in the Nutrition title since 2018 reflect consequences of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, inflation, and administrative adjustments pursuant to the 2018 farm bill. For the non-nutrition agriculture programs in the farm bill, current economic projections are that program outlays would be $221 billion over the next 10 years, 5% greater than at enactment in 2018," the Congressional Research Service projected last month.

The nonpartisan agency added that "since FY2020, Congress and the White House have provided supplemental pandemic assistance of over $30 billion to farms and over $60 billion for nutrition assistance." Future supplemental spending may further increase the final farm bill price tag.

Monster Subsidies That Are Unnecessary, But Seemingly Unstoppable

Cato's Lincicome pointed out that Australia and New Zealand both largely eliminated agricultural supports years ago and remain major producers. Their farmers learned to adapt and innovate in response to the market.

"In the midst of a financial crisis in the mid-1980s, New Zealand decided to swallow a bitter pill and scrap all farm subsidies," The Times of London reported in 2017. "There were nationwide protests, more than 50 suicides as land values plummeted and interest rates soared for indebted farmers no longer eligible for cheap finance. Yet today the country's farm sector is thriving and much more diversified."

But the legislative Frankenstein monsters that are modern U.S. farm bills create mutually reinforcing lobbies for raiding taxpayers and spending their money. That makes New Zealand-style agricultural reform enormously difficult, with SNAP rolled into the deal.

This isn't just about the seemingly unstoppable beast that is federal agricultural spending. This is also a cautionary tale about government meddling and subsidies in markets. At a time when the Biden administration is actively promoting industrial policy as a means of promoting American jobs and manufacturers (and making them dependent on government largesse), the farm bill demonstrates the dangers in unleashing policy monsters on the world.