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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Hijacking History in Arkansas

In a new TV ad, Rep. Tom Cotton tries to rewrite history with the claim that President Obama “hijacked the farm bill, turned it into a food stamp bill.” Food stamp funding has been part of farm bills going back to 1973.

Cotton’s ad seeks to explain the congressman’s vote earlier this year against the farm bill — a vote that bucked the rest of the Arkansas House delegation, all Republicans, and was criticized by the president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, who said he was “disappointed” in Cotton’s vote.

Cotton, who is locked in a tight race to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, frames his vote against the farm bill as an attempt to rein in food stamp spending, and his campaign notes that he supported an earlier House effort to separate food stamps from the farm bill. The Democratic-controlled Senate didn’t go for it, and neither did Obama. But contrary to the ad’s contention, it was House Republicans who were trying to upend congressional precedent, as farm bills going back four decades have included food stamp funding.

In a direct-to-camera appeal from his family’s farm in Dardanelle, Arkansas, Cotton says, “When President Obama hijacked the farm bill, turned it into a food stamp bill, with billions more in spending, I voted no. Career politicians love attaching bad ideas to good ones. Then the bad ideas become law, and you pay for it.”

The first farm bill was enacted in 1933 to give subsidies to farmers amid the Great Depression. And continuously since 1973, farm bills have included funding for food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to the Congressional Research Service. While some argue the arrangement makes pragmatic and thematic sense, it also has been viewed as a way for the legislation to get broad congressional support, appealing to both rural legislators interested in farm assistance and urban legislators interested in securing food assistance for the poor.

The 2008 farm bill — which included SNAP funding — was originally due to expire in 2012, and was extended. So that was the law of the land when in 2013 the Republican-controlled House tried to extricate the food stamp program from the rest of the farm bill. On July 11, 2013, the House passed “farm bill only” legislation, and then two months later passed a food stamp overhaul bill. Both bills passed the House — with Cotton and the rest of the Arkansas congressional delegation supporting them — without a single Democratic vote.

Immediately after the first vote, leaders in the Democratic-controlled Senate, including Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, made clear they would not consider a farm bill that did not include food stamp funding.

President Obama also released a statement condemning the House bill.

White House, July 12, 2013:  The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a cornerstone of our nation’s food assistance safety net and should not be left behind as the rest of the Farm Bill advances. If the President were presented with this bill, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.

And in November 2013, the White House released a 48-page report titled “The Economic Importance of Passing a Comprehensive Food, Farm and Jobs Bill.

That’s how Cotton arrives at his conclusion that Obama “hijacked” the farm bill — even though 40 years of historical precedent were on the side of a comprehensive farm bill that included food aid.

The House and Senate ultimately reached an accord on a farm bill that included SNAP funding. On Jan. 29, the conference report passed the House 251-166, with Cotton among the 63 Republicans who opposed it. While Cotton takes a jab in the ad at “career politicians” who “love attaching bad ideas to good ones,” we note that the bill was supported by Arkansas’ three other congressmen, Eric Crawford, Tim Griffin and Steve Womack — all Republicans.

Cotton is correct that the final farm bill included “billions more in spending.” There was $406 billion in food stamp funding in the 2008 farm bill and an estimated $756 billion in the 2014 farm bill, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Food stamp spending increased in recent years as a result of greater need caused by the Great Recession, and also partly due to liberalizations in both benefits and eligibility under Obama and also under his predecessor. We covered some of those issues in detail back in 2012, when then-GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich accused Obama of being the “food stamp president.”

Over the decades, the percentage of farm bill funding earmarked for food stamps has increased dramatically. Nearly 80 percent of the funding in the 2014 farm bill was for food stamps and nutrition. That’s up from about 55 percent in the 2002 farm bill.

However, it’s also true that the CBO projected the bill would reduce the deficit by $16.6 billion and trim a modest $8 billion in SNAP funding over 10 years compared with what would have happened if the 2008 bill had simply been extended in its entirety.

Cotton wanted more cuts. The stand-alone food stamp bill he supported called for $39 billion in cuts to the program over 10 years. The Senate version of the farm bill would have reduced nutrition spending by $4 billion over the next 10 years.

As we noted, the compromise conference report ultimately agreed to by both chambers included an estimated $8 billion reduction. That reduction was largely a result of a more restrictive provision regarding food benefits tied to heating and cooling allowances. Cotton’s campaign pointed to a Wall Street Journal article that found some states are already “gaming new food-stamp eligibility rules” to get around that provision, and so some of that $8 billion reduction may never be realized. Nonetheless, when Cotton argues that the farm bill was stuffed with “billions more in [food stamp] spending,” that’s true in raw dollars, but not true compared with the amount that was projected to have been spent had the 2008 law simply been extended without changes.

— Robert Farley