Texas Congressmen Plow Billions into Agribusiness While Proposing to Cut Food Stamps

Mike Conaway and Jodey Arrington are pushing for stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients while helping big commodity farmers rake in billions in government cheese.

Representative Mike Conaway, joined at right by House Speaker Paul Ryan, touts a draft of the Farm Bill during a news conference in Washington, D.C.
Representative Mike Conaway, joined at right by House Speaker Paul Ryan, touts a draft of the Farm Bill during a news conference in Washington, D.C. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Republican congressmen charged with writing the nation’s Farm Bill like to jabber about how people on food stamps need to get back to work. But those same lawmakers have helped secure billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies for big commodity farmers in the last three decades, a report released Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group found.

And while the House version of the 2018 Farm Bill, a sweeping piece of legislation passed about every five years that addresses nutritional aid and farm programs, aims to force draconian work requirements on America’s working poor, it also proposes making it even easier for agribusiness to draw taxpayer-funded subsidies, said Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.    

“Hypocrisy is not a strong enough word. It’s simply irresponsible to be advocating for policies that kick the poorest Americans off anti-hunger programs while simultaneously creating new farm subsidy loopholes for millionaires and billionaires,” Faber told the Observer.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s subsidy programs pay farmers each year to compensate for low crop prices and natural disasters such as floods and wildfires. Though the payments appear to be an important protection for some struggling family farmers, the subsidies overwhelmingly benefit a small number of well-off producers who grow a handful of commodity crops. Texas farmers received $1.59 billion in subsidies in 2016, more than any other state, but 81 percent of producers here collected no subsides at all.

The Environmental Working Group report found that 725 farmers in the cotton-centric congressional district of Midland Representative Mike Conaway, the House Farm Bill’s chief author, took in $2.4 billion in government payments from 1995 to 2016. Conaway rarely acknowledges these payments in the public arena, instead harping on funds sent to recipients of SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). A blog post co-written by Conaway last month characterized SNAP beneficiaries as “trapped in dependency” when they should be “creating their own American Dream.”

It’s more than just talk. Conaway’s Farm Bill draft proposes enforcing much stricter work requirements on SNAP recipients than currently exist, including for the parents of young children. Democrats have decried the bill’s threat to snatch away benefits from recipients for an entire calendar year if a recipient misses one month of work. What’s more, the proposed changes stand to interrupt food aid for rural residents living in Conaway’s own congressional district.     

Representative Jodey Arrington  U.S. House Office of Photography

Farmers in the Panhandle congressional district of Representative Jodey Arrington, who also serves on the House Agriculture Committee, have raked in a staggering $8 billion since 1995, according to the report. For his part, Arrington has quoted the biblical book of Thessalonians to justify stricter work requirements. And in an impassioned speech on the House floor in April, Arrington said, “God … expects personal responsibility and he expects us to have responsible policies that pull us up and out of a cycle of dependency.”

Neither Conaway nor Arrington’s offices had responded to a request for comment on this story by press time.

While Conaway and Arrington try to force strict work requirements on SNAP recipients, the Farm Bill takes the opposite tack when it comes to farm subsidies. The bill aims to roll back rules that limit subsidy payments to wealthy farmers who individually make more than $900,000. The draft also would extend subsidies to cousins, nieces and nephews of farmers even if they don’t live on the farm.

The irony isn’t lost on other members of the U.S. House, or even the committee’s fellow Republicans. Last month, the far-right Freedom Caucus helped to derail a vote on a Farm Bill draft over subsidy payment concerns and other issues. Their no votes, combined with unanimous nays from the Democratic bloc, killed the legislation, 213-198. Despite the loss, Conaway said he’s not changing anything before the next House vote.

The report also notes that nearly 28,000 farmers have received subsidies for 32 years straight, to the tune of $19 billion (the average SNAP recipient is enrolled in the program for only 10 months). One of the top 10 subsidy earners for those years is a Texas company: Frische Farms of Dumas, who raked in a grand total of $9.5 million. The farm is located in Representative Mac Thornberry’s congressional district.   

“There’s no way to explain how so many farmers in Texas could get paid every year for 32 years,” Faber said. “Either there are some very unlucky farmers or some very bad farmers, or these programs are reverse-engineered to pay off every year. And a safety net that’s reverse-engineered to pay out every year isn’t a safety net at all; it’s a handout.”

Or, perhaps the difference between a “handout” and a “subsidy” — for Conaway and Arrington, at least — is who’s getting the cash.

Christopher Collins is an Observer staff writer covering rural Texas. He can be reached on Twitter or at [email protected]

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Published at 4:19 pm CST
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