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August 6th, 2012

Farm Bill Update: Congress Takes a Break from Their Fine Mess

By Patty Lovera

Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

After a spring and early summer full of endless rumors, a whole lot of political posturing, and a couple marathon days of hearings and votes, Congress is headed home for August recess… without passing the 2012 Farm Bill.

The full Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill in June and the House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the bill in mid-July. The current Farm Bill (passed in 2008) does not expire until September 30th, so it is possible for Congress to finish the process and pass a new bill when they come back into session in September.

The next step in a normal process would be for the full House to vote on the committee version and then for the House and Senate to hold a conference committee to reconcile their versions of the bill. (See post from July 12th for details on differences between the House committee and Senate versions.)

But it’s looking less likely that this year’s process will be anything close to normal. As veteran agriculture journalist Phil Brasher said last Friday in a trade publication, “The bill could become mired in political crossfire this fall.” The political crossfire could take many different forms, but the short version is that if the House agriculture committee version of the bill goes to the House floor, there might not be enough votes to pass it. Some Democrats will oppose it because of the deep cuts it makes in nutrition programs like SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and some conservative Republicans will oppose it because those cuts aren’t deeper.  

One of many scenarios about how this bill will eventually be finished is that it may never receive a vote from the full House, and instead the House Agriculture Committee version (or a bill to extend the 2008 Farm Bill for one year, or a disaster assistance bill, or about 3 other possibilities) is conferenced with the bill the Senate already passed. In any of the scenarios, it’s a messy process that skips a major step where members of the House who are not on the Agriculture Committee would have a chance to amend the bill.

There are a lot of things that should be amended in the House agriculture committee version. From regulation of genetically engineered crops, to country of origin labeling, to organic to fair livestock markets, to conservation, the House bill is a mess. But the odds of that happening go way down if the bill never sees the House floor. 

If you’ve been tracking the Farm Bill process, you have likely heard a lot about the urgent need to pass a new bill this year. There’s a good reason for that: even if the 2008 Farm Bill is extended, a bunch of good programs for beginning farmers, conservation, organic production and other important issues, go away. The way to preserve these programs is to pass a brand new bill. Problem is, the proposals we are looking at for a new Farm Bill are not so hot. The Senate bill is better, but leaves a lot to be desired on many fronts.

As I mentioned earlier, the House bill is, to be polite, a mess. So welcome to the rock and the hard place: extend the old bill and lose critical programs or work with two unsatisfactory bills to create a whole new Farm Bill and keep (most of) those programs alive.

And then there’s the drought…While things just keep getting worse in a huge portion of farm country, a lot of the programs designed to aid farmers and ranchers in a disaster need to be renewed. As the Democratic leadership of the Senate likes to point out, one way to fix that is to pass a new version of the Farm Bill that includes disaster programs. Or as the House did on their way out of town this week, you can pass a stand-alone bill that just deals with disaster assistance (the House bill dealt mostly with programs to provide assistance to livestock producers who are not usually covered by crop insurance, and paid for it by cutting conservation programs.)

This will be what members of Congress “message” about in August. And it does need to be dealt with, because this drought is a huge problem for producers all over the country. But this debate about short-term relief and the politics of the Farm Bill misses a lot of the big picture – why farmers (and eaters) are left so unprotected when things go wrong in the food system. Whether it’s shortages caused by drought, or surpluses caused by bumper crops, extreme swings in crop prices aren’t good for farmers or eaters over the long term.

We used to have farm policies designed to try to even out some of this volatility, by managing the supply of major commodity crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and other grains. By the time the 1996 Farm Bill was done, so were these programs. The first step in fixing this would be to create a grain reserve – a novel concept that has been used since ancient civilizations, on the premise that sometimes things like drought happen and it’s a good idea to have some supplies on hand to ride it out.

Reserves can also be used to protect farmers when they have a great year – and that overproduction drives down prices. Some of that bumper crop can go into the reserve, instead of onto the market, to help them get a fair price. The National Farmers Union has a solid proposal for creating a farmer-controlled reserve program that Congress should be incorporating into the next Farm Bill. This would start to deal with the long-term problem of creating a stable food supply, rather than using the latest crisis as a talking point in their political battles.

So on that cheery note, that’s the update. If you see your members of Congress at home in August, tell them they do need to finish the Farm Bill – but they need to make it a lot better in the process. 

And here’s a good guide on what the Farm Bill could and should be. Which is why we have to keep organizing to build the political power we need to make Congress get it right in future Farm Bills.

Tell your members of Congress what they need to do with the Farm Bill when they do work on it:

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