The current five-year farm bill expires on Sept. 30. Congress still needs to merge the complete Senate bill with the House agriculture-only bill and a separate nutrition bill covering food stamps. Republicans previously split the bill covering food stamps from a wider farm bill and slashed it by $39 billion, setting up the current legislative mess.
Republicans in the House have justified the cuts as the fiscally responsible thing to do.
"This bill makes getting Americans back to work a priority again for our nation's welfare programs," House Speaker John A. Boehner said shortly after the nutrition bill passed by a vote of 217 to 210, with no support from Democrats and 15 Republicans voting against it.
As the number of people on food stamps jumped to around 47 million after the Great Recession hit, the program's funding also leaped, increasing to $83 billion this year, from $35 billion in 2007.
Yet the agriculture bill — which will provide $195 billion in crop insurance and commodity support to farmers over the next 10 years — was passed easily by House Republicans, even though some conservative groups, like the Heritage Foundation, have criticized it for giving "perverse subsidies to profitable agricultural enterprises."
Liberal New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait agrees, arguing that "farmers earn more than the average American, and there's no rationale for handing government money to somebody just because they own a farm as opposed to a convenience store or a hot-dog stand."
Over on the libertarian side, Megan McCardle of Bloomberg (who favors cutting both food stamps and farm subsidies) explains how House Republicans might justify their votes:
So here's one reason Republicans might support farm subsidies, but not food stamps: The sense that you have to do something to get them. Ethanol subsidies are wildly distortive — bad for the environment, bad for the poor, and bad for the U.S. budget. But the people collecting them do actually have to grow some corn, or make some ethanol, which is then used by other people. They're not being given money just for breathing. [Bloomberg]
The more cynical take is that America's powerful agricultural lobby is influencing Congress, a luxury the nation's hungry don't have. Even Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has criticized U.S. farm subsidies, calling them "an egregious example of cronyism."
House Republicans have "ag lobbyists and large farm donors," writes The Atlantic's Derek Thompson, who influence the conversation "to the point where passing a bill without increased farm subsidies seems wholly unacceptable, but passing a bill without food assistance for 47 million families feels a-okay."
Another theory? Farmers might make up only two percent of the American workforce, but "those voters care a lot about farm policy," writes The Washington Post's Brad Plumer, while "most other voters don't care much about farm policy at all — and are unaware of the costs of agricultural subsidies."
Regardless, it doesn't look like Congress will be able to reconcile the Senate and House bills in time.
"I'm an eternal optimist, but I can't see them getting anything done before the fiscal year ends," Dale Moore, executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told The New York Times. "Right now we're just hoping that something will get done before the end of the year."