The Farm Bill doesn’t usually get as much press as some other congressional actions. Something like raising the debt ceiling or nominating a Speaker of the House draws attention to the too-good-to-miss partisan fights in which one side must vanquish the other. But every five years, the Farm Bill, which determines national food and agricultural policy, is usually passed with bipartisan support. The bill brings the two parties together to fund major programs: SNAP benefits (supported by Democrats) and subsidy payments for commodity-crop farmers (supported by Republicans). It also provides funds for crop insurance and conservation efforts. The two parties usually combine these various programs in one bill without much argument.
But the process of passing the 2023 Farm Bill has been unusually contentious. A group of far-right Republicans have broken with the status quo, insisting that the bill’s price tag—expected to exceed $1 trillion for the first time—is too high. They are targeting both Democratic and Republican priorities: they want cuts to SNAP benefits and new restrictions on eligibility as well as reduced funding for agricultural subsidies. Subsidy payments are popular in right-leaning congressional districts: individual farmers who grow commodity crops—corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton—are paid by the government when the commodity price drops below a certain threshold. Begun as part of a New Deal program to help farmers suffering in the Depression and to maintain the national food supply, the commodity subsidies encourage farmers to keep planting even when they can’t make a profit.
In response to these demands from right-wing Republicans, Democrats sent a letter to Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, insisting that SNAP benefits not be cut. Many moderate Republicans, including House Agriculture Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, are urging their colleagues to support the bill with SNAP benefits fully intact. They know that not passing the Farm Bill—or passing it too late—would be extremely unpopular among their constituents, who depend on subsidy payments. The bill almost certainly won’t be passed by September 30, when the previous Farm Bill expires. If it isn’t passed before the end of the year, the majority of the programs it would fund will expire.
SNAP is indeed expensive, comprising 80 percent of the Farm Bill’s cost. But the program feeds 42 million people—12 percent of the country and a quarter of American children. Low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled all depend on it. One of the goals of the far-right Republican cohort is to roll back a recent benefit increase. As a nutrition program, SNAP benefits are determined in part by the Department of Agriculture; the USDA calculates the average cost of a nutritious meal for a family of four, and this information is used to set benefit amounts. Until 2021, this calculation had only adjusted for inflation the grocery prices from 1975, when the calculation was first made. It didn’t take into account the rising cost of groceries or various dietary needs. Before the 2021 adjustment, the maximum SNAP benefit did not cover the “average cost of a modestly priced meal in 96 percent of U.S. counties,” according to an Urban Institute study. Far-right Republicans are threatening not to support the bill unless this very modest increase—between $12 and $16 per person per month—is scrapped.