Congress is deciding whether to reform the nation’s farm subsidy system and, while it is at it, will probably cut the amount it dedicates to food stamps for the poor and low-income workers. Both programs are part of what’s known as the farm bill, the five-year authorization that sets the terms for government crop assistance and defines eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
It turns out that some Congress members receive farm subsidies themselves, or get them through farms and corporations they and their relatives own. Whether they should or shouldn’t is not for us to say. Proponents and opponents of the subsidies, primarily direct payments made to farm owners, can be found in both political parties.
But U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, finds it disconcerting that some of the lawmakers who gladly take the government’s subsidies want to cut SNAP, or subsidies to people who need help buying groceries. Discussing the 2013 farm bill, which recently passed in the Senate and is under debate in the House, Brown told reporters on a conference call on June 12, "There's a lot of pressure in the House of Representatives to just emasculate the SNAP program. For whatever reason, some of these members of the House of Representatives get hundreds of thousands of dollars in farm subsidies. They think they earned that, and on the other hand, then they want to cut food stamps, and I think that's morally wrong."
We cannot read the minds of subsidy recipients, so we will not judge whether Congress members -- who earn $174,000 federal salaries -- think they have earned the right to farm subsidies. But Brown’s claim struck us as worth examining.
Examples were easy to find. The Environmental Working Group, or EWG, an advocacy and research group, maintains a database of federal farm subsidies and has run lawmakers’ names to see what they or their families are getting. News organizations have used this database (and the public can, too), and some have noted where the recipients stand on food stamps, or SNAP. For instance:
* Rep. Steve Fincher of Tennessee, "who supports billions of dollars in cuts to the food stamp program," is "one of the largest recipients of federal farm subsidies, according to new annual data released by a Washington environmental group." This was in the New York Times on May 22. Fincher, from Frog Jump, Tenn., and his wife "collected nearly $3.5 million in subsidies from 1999 to 2012," reported the Times, using EWG data. In 2012 alone, the couple received about $70,000 in direct payments, which is "money that is given to farmers and farmland owners, even if they do not grow crops," the Times wrote.
During debate in May on whether to cut $20.5 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years, Fincher, a Republican, said, "We have to remember there is not a big printing press in Washington that continually prints money over and over. This is other people’s money that Washington is appropriating and spending."
* Rep. Doug LaMalfa of California and his wife, Jill, together own one third of DSL LaMalfa Family Partnership, which in 2012 alone got $188,570 in direct farm payments from the federal government, according to the EWG. That would put last year’s subsidies to LaMalfa and his wife at $62,857. But going back to 1995, the DSL LaMalfa Family Partnership has received $5.13 million, which would put the share of Rep. LaMalfa and his wife at $1.7 million, EWG said.
In May, LaMalfa won a House amendment that would require electronic fraud prevention measures and eliminate bonus pay for signing up new SNAP recipients. He said in a statement then, "The success of the food stamp program should be measured by how many Americans become self-sufficient, not how many are added to the rolls."
* Rep. Marlin Stutzman of Indiana has received $196,268 in farm subsidies since 1997, according to the EWG.
Stutzman, a Republican, recently proposed cutting SNAP by $30 billion over 10 years, deeper than the $20.5 billion now on the table, saying, "Everyone in Washington talks about deficit reduction but we’ve introduced a real, responsible plan to save taxpayer dollars. Over the past decade, SNAP spending has doubled as this program outgrows its original mission of providing temporary assistance."
The list goes on. The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, both reviewing the same EWG data as other media, noted that 15 members of Congress got farm subsidies in 2012. (None were from Ohio.) Thirteen were Republicans and two were Democrats. The Democrats were in the Senate -- Michael Bennett of Colorado and Jon Tester of Montana, who says he is the Senate’s only "working farmer." Both voted June 10 for the Senate version of the farm bill, which would cut SNAP by $4 billion, or about $16 billion less than the House GOP leaders want. Brown, too, voted for the bill after failing to get the SNAP cut restored.
It’s fairly obvious where this leaves Brown’s claim that some House members accepted "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in farm subsidies but are eager to cut food stamps.
But before ruling, we’ll note in fairness that some of the farm-subsidy recipients told the Wall Street Journal that the farm programs need reform, too. Fincher issued a statement saying, "I voted immediately to remove direct payments," the Journal wrote. And, the Journal added, a spokesman for LaMalfa said the lawmaker has long opposed the farm-subsidy system and voted to end direct payments.
In Stutzman’s case, the receipt of subsidies was a political issue in his 2010 election. But he maintained to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette that the farm-support system is like a mandate, giving him no choice. The farmer "has to take it," he told the Journal Gazette in 2010.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the program is voluntary.
OK, so maybe he and the others didn’t like it one bit when they got farm subsidies. We’re not here to judge their motives. But we are here to judge Brown’s claim. It is True.