October 31, 2011

Countdown to the Farm Bill: Count Fast or You Might Miss It

Marlena White

Marlena White

CLF Student Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

Fasten Your Farm Bill Seatbelts

Normally, passing the Farm Bill takes at least a year and involves a great deal of input from interest groups of all stripes. That process allows air-time for the voices fighting for healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable food systems. This time around, however, the process may happen entirely behind closed doors—and at breakneck speed.

You may be asking yourself: How can this process be so undemocratic?

Let’s look at what the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are doing at this very moment. The leadership of the two committees is drafting their own version of the Bill, reportedly with little or no input from other committee members, and will make recommendations to the Super Committee in the next few days. The Super Committee can then do whatever they want with the recommendations: ignore them, change them, or adopt them. Any debate will happen in secret.

In less than a month—by a deadline of Thanksgiving—the Super Committee will present their version of the Farm Bill, and it will be voted on in Congress. It is unlikely that any floor debate will occur, and the Super Committee’s Bill will be passable with a simple majority. The details of the process are not exactly crystal-clear, but this blogpost by DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton provides some perspective, as does this blogpost by IATP’s Ben Lilliston. This post by Park Wilde from U.S. Food Policy at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, may also be helpful.

The high-speed nature of the process is problematic for a few reasons. First, anyone who might oppose the Ag Committee leadership’s priorities in a floor debate becomes effectively silenced in the absence of a debate. Even the Ag Committee members, some of whom might stand up for issues of concern to public health, are excluded from the process. Second, the Ag Committee leadership becomes even more influential than usual in determining how proposed cuts will be distributed.* Third, their success or failure to agree on a unified approach can have many ramifications. And the likelihood of Super Committee “success” is uncertain, which raises many more questions.** (Read this Washington Post article for more on that.) (Read here about House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and his frustration with the Super Committee “standing over our shoulders or behind us with a cattle prod.”)

While the Farm Bill process hurtles forward, many groups are rushing to protect their agendas from what could be a round of debilitating cuts. Supporters of direct payment subsidies have been especially aggressive in pushing for programs that will curb their losses. If they succeed, the pitfalls of the current subsidy system, such as the inequity of its distribution, may survive in whatever program replacing it, along with much of its current cost. Other programs will then have to absorb even larger cuts. Conservation and nutrition, both important for American’s health and well-being, are already expected to be hit particularly hard.

Also disheartening is the likelihood that many of the voices likely to be shut out of the process are those in support of local, regional and sustainable food systems. There are a couple of bills, however, that might offer opportunities to get a foot in the door on priorities we care about: Rep. Chellie Pingree (D–ME) has a strong bill with many provisions that contribute to public health goals for sustainable, local and regional food systems. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D–OR)’s “Family Farm Values” incorporates some similar principles, but is more overtly anti-subsidy.”

Roni Neff, CLF’s research and policy director, remains optimistic despite the grim goings-on: “Even if legislation is passed in the next few months, advocates will be seeking ways to rearrange how funds are distributed, to find alternate ways to bring more funds to bolster the budgets of the most important programs, to support the best possible implementation.”

Rebecca Klein, director of CLF’s Public Health and Agriculture Policy Project, says that a Super Committee end to the Farm Bill process would be a disappointment, but that, “Despite the chaos of the current political climate, a solid foundation of communication and partnership between health and agriculture groups is taking shape. Such an alliance will be a strong voice for practical solutions—ones that support farmers’ livelihoods and Americans’ health—now and into the future.”

Despite the rather grisly circumstances currently unfolding, it is important to remember that the Farm Bill is not the only opportunity to improve our food system. We may have to brace ourselves for some disappointments in this Farm Bill cycle, but we can still strive for the best food and farm policy possible, in future Farm Bills and beyond.

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*Based on preliminary discussion, the bill could cut $15 billion from Commodities, $6 billion from Conservation (on top of the substantial cuts in the appropriations process), and $4 billion from Nutrition. Read this unofficial transcript of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) on AgriTalk.

**Their failure or a nay vote from Congress would trigger a $1.2 tillion cut across the federal government. This is expected to lead to a $15 billion cut distributed across Farm Bill programs (other than SNAP and the Conservation Reserve Program, which are exempt). This cut would of course be less than the $23 billion suggested by the Agriculture Committees, but its impacts would hit in different ways.  A regular Farm Bill process would be needed in this case to manage the new reduced budget.

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