Catholic leaders weigh in on new farm bill

Since President Barack Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014 (popularly known as the farm bill) into law in early February, states and communities have been hard at work trying to figure out what it means at the micro level. The president’s approval of the bipartisan bill, which affects national agricultural policy for five years, followed two years of wrangling over the bill’s provisions, which the Congressional Budget Office predicts will cost $956.4 billion over the next decade. Throughout the past two years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, joined by three major Catholic organizations, repeatedly sought to influence the bill’s contents. In the end, the USCCB and the leaders of the other organizations lamented some cuts but expressed satisfaction with other parts of the 949-page law.

Catholic concerns

The previous farm bill — the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 — helped set agricultural spending priorities through 2012. As lawmakers began to debate a new farm bill, the USCCB outlined its concerns.

Joined by the leaders of Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (now called Catholic Rural Life), the chairmen of two USCCB committees urged members of Congress in March 2012 to “support a farm bill that provides for poor and hungry people both at home and abroad, offers effective support for those who grow our food, ensures fairness to family farmers and ranchers, and promotes stewardship of the land.

“We also urge that this farm bill target limited resources, such as subsidies and direct payments, to those farmers and ranchers who truly need assistance to be competitive and successful,” they added. The Catholic leaders emphasized the importance of “access to adequate and nutritious food for those in need” and opposed “attempts to weaken or restructure these programs that would result in reduced benefits to hungry people.”

In June 2012, the Senate approved a measure whose provisions would cost $969 billion over a decade, while the following month the House Agricultural Committee approved a $957 billion bill. The USCCB committee chairs expressed deep concern about the House committee’s proposed $16.5 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 47.6 million Americans use the program, with an average monthly benefit of $133 per person.

“At this time of economic hardship and continued high unemployment, the committee should protect essential programs that serve poor and hungry people,” Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., then-chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, said in a 2012 letter. “To cut programs that feed hungry people in the midst of economic turmoil is unjustified and wrong.

“We remain concerned that conservation and rural development programs continue to receive significant cuts,” they added, as they called for cuts to other line items. “Agriculture subsidies,” they said, “should be reduced overall and crop insurance should be targeted to help small and medium sized farmers, especially minority owned farms, over larger industrial agriculture.”

The full House of Representatives did not vote on the agriculture committee’s bill. In December 2012, Congress agreed to a temporary extension of the 2008 farm bill.

As Congress resumed debate in 2013, Bishop Blaire, Bishop Pates and the leaders of Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference again expressed their concerns.

“With continued high unemployment and a struggling economy, the need for adequate funding levels in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and other programs that help hungry people, are essential,” they wrote in a May letter to members of Congress.

Internationally, “Congress should also protect funding for emergency assistance and food security development projects,” the five Catholic leaders added. They called for an overall reduction in agricultural subsidies, urged continued support for rural development programs, and said “conservation initiatives should receive full funding in order to promote stewardship of the land and environmentally sound agriculture practices.”

As negotiations on the farm bill began to draw to a close in November, the five Catholic leaders, joined by the head of the National Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, reiterated their position in letters to representatives and senators.

Mixed reviews

After House and Senate negotiators agreed to compromise legislation, the House approved the farm bill Jan. 29. Senate approval followed Feb. 4.

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According to the Congressional Budget Office, the provisions of the 2014 farm bill will lead to $16.5 billion in reduced spending over 10 years compared to the 2008 farm bill. Nearly half of that reduction comes from cuts to SNAP and other domestic food programs.

Throughout the next decade, the United States is expected to spend $756.4 billion on food stamps and other nutrition programs ($8 billion less than it would have under the 2008 farm bill), $89.8 billion on crop insurance ($5.7 billion more), $57.6 billion on conservation ($4 billion less), $44.5 billion on commodity programs ($14.3 billion less), and $8.1 billion on other provisions ($4.1 billion more).

According to a USCCB statement, Catholic leaders expressed mixed feelings about the final result.

“While we are disappointed that the final compromise continues to call disproportionately for sacrifices from hungry and poor people in this country and around the world, especially when large industrial agricultural operations continue to receive unnecessary subsidies, we are glad to see support will continue for domestic and international nutrition and development aid, rural development and conservation,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, the new chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Bishop Pates added that “with one in eight persons around the world struggling to feed themselves each day, we welcome the renewed commitment by Congress to programs that tackle root causes of chronic hunger and appreciate its foresight in making programs more cost effective so we can serve more people with the limited resources available.”

James Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, said he was “disappointed to see that necessary reforms to farm commodity programs and payment levels have been struck down in the final bill.

“Congress needs to close loopholes and set real payment limits,” he said. “By doing so, the farm bill will help to save hundreds of millions of dollars and take a step toward leveling the playing field for all family farmers.”

J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.