One of the things I vividly remember learning in my first class on agricultural policy was that the farm bill is a result of a political compromise. As the story goes, including food stamps in the farm bill encourages support from urban legislators while the farm support provisions bring in the more rural legislators (farmers benefit from food stamps too by poorer consumers having more money to spend on food). The farm bill is a grand compromise of sorts - a comprise funded by the taxpayers.
After a long run, it appears this compromise might be breaking down. Much has been written in the past couple weeks about the defeat of the farm bill in the House. Here is one decent description at Forbes.com of the politics at play. In short, Democrats were unhappy with the cuts to food assistance and the introduction of work requirements to get food stamps. Some deficit-watching Republicans didn't think the cuts went far enough. It is true that the cuts to food assistance were large in dollar terms (see the graphics in this Washington Post article) but if you place them in terms of a percentage reduction relative to the overall size of the farm-bill budget, they are actually smaller than cuts to some other areas. The reasons is that food stamps and nutrition programs make up almost 80% of the farm bill budget.
I've shared my general thoughts on farm programs in chapter 7 of the Food Police but here are a few more. Although I realize it is probably politically infeasible (although perhaps less so given recent developments), it would seem to make some sense to me to separate the components of the farm bill and see if they can stand on their own. Those advocating for food-stamp spending should make their case and put the money over in the Department of Health and Human Services. Those advocating for farm supports should make arguments with merits that stand on their own grounds.
Right now I'm not going to get into the merits and demerits of the current farm bill. However, what I don't see reported much is what regular folk think. A couple years ago, we conducted a survey on exactly this topic and the results are discussed in Choices Magazine, a publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. In the survey, we posed the following questions to respondents: "Suppose the USDA gave you $100 to divide among its six budget categories. How much money would you give to each budget category? (If you would not give money to a certain category, please place a zero (0) in its box." In essence, we asked people to make their own farm-bill budget. For one group, we gave them information on the spending allocation by the USDA in 2008, for another group we didn't give them any information.
Although people prefer a lot of support for food assistance (28% or 20% of the budget depending on information) , this is much lower than current farm bill proposed allocation (almost 80%). Moreover, here are the results from another question, where we simply asked people to indicate which category they thought was most important.
Far and away, food safety and inspection was seen as most important.
Now, I'm not saying we should set policy based on these kinds of survey responses (e.g., did people understand the FDA not the USDA handles a lot of the food safety and inspection issues in the country?; We didn't ask if they wanted the size of the pie to be larger or smaller, etc). But I find them interesting nonetheless.