Monday, July 15, 2013

Unbundling SNAP Makes Farm Subsidy Reform Easier

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Paul Krugman today ripped into House Republicans for voting to extend the terrible policy disaster of the farm bill while stripping funding for the food stamps program, SNAP. Although this move is by no means settled (food stamps could return in the Senate or conference process), Krugman's collection of factoids and jabs all seem spot-on in revealing the maneuver's perverse moral signal.

But if we take a step back from the symbolism and rhetoric, the potential decoupling of SNAP from the farm bill will likely result in better agricultural policy in the future. 

For one, food stamps aren't going anywhere. The program is incredibly popular with a broad beneficiary base; any serious attempt by Congress to eliminate it would result in massive spontaneous public outrage. Some Republicans speak of a desire to lump all welfare assistance together, run through a single committee. That would be great for institutional efficiency, but it makes liberals nervous by creating a single target vulnerable to marginal cuts. That's all irrelevant though--the likely outcome of a SNAP decoupling is Congress passing a targeted food assistance bill with Republican support, purchased with some other random policy concessions. Certainly not a great outcome, but understandable given the bargaining constraints of divided government.

The farm bill, by contrast, desperately needs an overhaul. In an age where most issues break across party lines, the ridiculous subsidies to wealthy farmers have found support from reelection-minded legislators representing rural districts. This is 'public choice 101': benefits flow to a small, intense group, while costs are vague and distributed. What's more, liberal lawmakers representing urban districts who should be voting against the regressive farm subsidies don't, because they need SNAP. 

So this decoupling will make urban lawmakers more willing to push for farm bill reform. At the very least it scrambles the calcified status quo, and raises the visibility of the issue. Even among rural lawmakers, tackling reform may be more palatable: there's surely some subset who vote 'yea' every time by electoral necessity, but privately understand that recent farm bills bear little relation to their original purpose of safeguarding domestic food security.

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