House Farm Bill Could Create New Entitlement Spending

As previously written, enhanced work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) recipients are a key component of the House Farm Bill, H.R. 2. Taxpayers might have expected to see some savings from this reform, but instead the bill plows funds into Employment and Training (E&T) services that states are required to administer. At $1 billion a year after a two-year phase-in period, this expansion raises a number of concerns.

There’s little reason to assume expanded E&T will help more people enter the workforce. The last study that examined the program, in 1994, found “no evidence [the program] increased the likelihood of participants finding jobs.” There has been no major study of the SNAP E&T program since then. The 2014 Farm Bill did enact a ten-state pilot program, but until that is complete in 2019, there’s little data by which to evaluate this investment of taxpayer funds. Government sponsored job training programs have had mixed results and in the past, Congress has worked to streamline, not expand, the often-duplicative programs under the authority of numerous agencies. Until more is known from the ongoing E&T pilot programs, legislators should avoid pouring more funds into this uncertain enterprise.

The E&T services are direct spending or mandatory dollars, and so the House Farm Bill could be creating a new entitlement for states. As limited government advocates warned during the Obamacare fight, new funding streams for states can be hard to turn off, and all the more so when those dollars go out the door automatically, outside the appropriations process. Already, more than sixty percent of federal spending is on autopilot - and growing! Legislators should think twice before creating a new opportunity to exacerbate our entitlement spending crisis.

Battered foot-soldiers in the fight against Obamacare will recall how urgently we all worked to repeal it, and how we argued that states shouldn’t accept the bribe to expand Medicaid because the longer subsidies were in place, for individuals and states, the harder it would be to roll back. Milton Friedman’s adage, “there’s nothing so permanent as a temporary government program” is the sad reality that makes repealing even parts of Obamacare more and more challenging with each passing day.

Likewise, even on the Farm Bill’s five-year cycle, a new revenue stream for states will be extremely tough to dislodge in the future, regardless of how the program actually performs or economic conditions at that time.

That we even have a Farm Bill at all reflects this basic principle in action. The first Farm Bill, enacted 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal was a response to very similar conditions today’s farmers are facing: bumper yields and low prices, making farmers essentially victims of their own success, along with dwindling export opportunities. Were the same solutions–price supports, supply controls, regulations, subsidies, market restrictions, and special treatment of certain crops–prescribed today they would be dismissed out of hand as a socialist boondoggle by free-market supporters in Congress. However, largely by dint of sheer longevity, these very policies are increasingly accepted as fundamental to the agriculture economy and rarely examined based on merit. And the longer subsidies remain in place the harder and harder they will ever be to unravel. Eliminating direct payments in the 2014 Farm Bill might be perceived as the rare exception to this rule, but rather than simply repealing that failed policy direct payments were replaced with programs that are arguably worse for taxpayers.

As the Congressional Budget Office reported barely one month ago, the federal debt is on track to be nearly 100 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in only ten years. That should give lawmakers pause before taking steps to put more spending on autopilot, particularly for a program with little measurable success or economic benefit.