Republicans are set to move landmark welfare reform in this year's farm bill, which includes language requiring able-bodied adults to work or participate in a job training program to be eligible for food stamps. Democrats in Congress, however, have decided to litmus test opposition to work requirements and have therefore walked away en masse from supporting the usually bipartisan farm bill. That gives conservatives leverage to push for free-market reforms to the other 20 percent of the bill — and they should.
The food stamp program accounts for about 80 percent of the cost of the farm bill, and work requirements are overwhelmingly popular with the public. They enjoy a robust 82 percent approval among all voters and are supported by even 71 percent of Democrats according to a recent poll commissioned by the Foundation for Government Accountability.
If the farm bill accomplished nothing else, it would be worth supporting for this popular, critical reform that would incentivize Americans to reenter the workforce and get back on the ladder of economic opportunity — while helping grow an economy that is being held back by chronic shortages of workers in many industries.
But a farm bill that reforms the food stamp program while reauthorizing farm welfare programs without reforms — and in some cases even with expansions — is an unnecessary political gift to Democrats, who can spin their opposition to sensible work requirements by accusing Republicans of hypocrisy.
The bill loosens the loophole that allows non-farmers to collect agricultural subsidies of up to $125,000 per year. Current law allows immediate family members of farmers to collect even if they don't live on the farm — the proposed farm bill expands the definition to include urban-dwelling cousins, nieces and nephews. And they aren't required to work to collect the money. And commodity support programs are available for couples making up to $1.8 million per year — hardly the needy — rather than following the much more sensible proposal in President Trump's budget to cap eligibility at $500,000.
The bill also reauthorizes the Soviet-style sugar program, which the great anti-cronyism writer Tim Carney has accurately identified as a test of whether Republicans "understand the distinction between pro-business and pro-market."
The sugar program is a hidden tax of $2.4 to $4 billion per year according to an analysis by the American Enterprise Institute — and it pushes candy companies to move to Mexico so they can buy sugar at the much lower world price.
Census Bureau estimates show the sugar program has destroyed about 123,000 American jobs. But it continues because the sugar industry is politically powerful, especially in the key state of Florida. There might be enough votes in the House to reform the sugar program, but we won't find out unless leadership allows a vote.
Ultimately, conservatives may find it impossible to resist voting for a bill with a key policy reform (work requirements) applied to the single program (food stamps) that accounts for 80 percent of farm bill spending. But if they can use the leverage gained from Democrats walking away from the table to force reforms on the farm side of the bill they will achieve an even bigger victory while saving leadership from an obvious political vulnerability created by the current bill.