Congress finally is getting some things done. The Senate on Tuesday ratified the expansive farm bill, just days after the House of Representatives approved the measure, 251-166. Recall that in mid-January, Congress passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that funded the government through September and averted a much-used recent practice of temporary stopgap measures.
And now Congress has sent to President Barack Obama the farm bill, which spends almost $1 trillion over 10 years and is the federal government’s main tool of agricultural policy. The present bill is a renewal of legislation that expired last year, a victim of partisan gridlock in D.C. Much of it is geared toward growers in other parts of the country, especially the Midwest, but it also benefits Northwest agricultural interests.
Of special importance to the Yakima Valley, the bill funds Washington State University specialty-crop research, with matching funds from local groups like the state Tree Fruit Research Commission. There is also funding for a rootstock inspection service at WSU’s Prosser station and overseas trade promotion programs. The bill does trim about $16.6 billion in total, with $5 billion in cuts to direct payments to farmers in return for a crop-insurance program that has found favor in the ag industry. It also consolidates conservation programs.
The biggest cuts come in the biggest program of the bill, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which will see about $8.5 billion shaved over the next decade, about 1 percent of its budget. Previously known as the food stamp program, SNAP takes up about three-quarters of the farm bill’s $956 billion budget and serves about one in seven residents nationally.
That ratio is almost one in three in Yakima County. As of last April, 71,798 Yakima County residents received SNAP benefits, accounting for 29 percent of the county’s overall population, and about 30 percent of those hold paying jobs. So not only does the farm bill affect many ag businesses, it also has an impact on tens of thousands of food consumers locally.
Many fiscal conservatives are unhappy with the bill, believing more could have been cut from SNAP and in ag assistance. Some Democrats also are unhappy with the cuts in the expansive food-stamp program and opposed the bill for that reason. Those differences played out in versions that passed the two representative bodies; the House wanted to cut $40 billion from SNAP and the Senate $4 billion. That’s the nature of compromise — not everybody gets what they want — a lesson the Congress reluctantly seems to be learning and practicing.
Next would be to take these newly found compromise skills and apply them to issues like comprehensive immigration reform and another budget measure, the latter in autumn during congressional election season. Those will be much heavier lifts, but at least Congress has begun to exercise its duty of passing significant legislation again.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.