August 3, 2012

The 2012 Farm Bill: Evolution or Devolution?

Sarita Wahba

Sarita Wahba

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

Still waiting ...

It’s been a long summer for those of us working at the Center for a Livable Future, and that’s not just because of the heat, the severe storms, and the power outages. We have been anxiously awaiting the final passage of the 2012 farm bill.  And waiting. And waiting. And waiting. For me, all of this waiting begs the question: what is taking so long? In an effort to get some answers, I went back in time to research the occurrences over the last couple of months. The following is a synopsis of this summer’s farm bill activities.

FARM BILLS ARE DRAFTED

After three days of deliberation, the Senate passed their version of the farm bill (the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act) by a vote of 64-35 on June 21, 2012.  Some important provisions of the bill, which CLF supports, include commodity payment reform, appropriations for rural development, improvement in soil and wetlands conservation, and continued investment in sustainable agriculture programs. Two of the primary drawbacks are the $3.7 billion decrease in spending to working farms and ranches conservation and the $4.5 billion decrease in Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) funding. For more details about what’s in the Senate Bill, check out an earlier CLF blogpost by Rebecca Klein.

Following the passage of the Senate version of the bill, there was mounting anticipation from the agricultural community for the arrival of the House version.  This finally occured on July 5, when the House Agriculture Committee released their farm bill draft and on July 12, when the committee approved their version of the farm bill with a vote of 35-11. Some of the main provisions in this bill are big public health disappointments, including $16 billion in cuts to Nutrition programs, and $6 billion in cuts to conservation programs. Ultimately these cuts are meant to create $35 billion in savings over a ten-year period.

While neither of these versions of the bill are perfect, and there are numerous program cuts that CLF does not support, those of us that were anxiously awaiting the farm bill were at least pleased that Congress was close to discussing a final bill!

STAGNATION

Despite the release of the final House draft, any immediate potential for a vote on the bill was blocked. On July 12, the same day as the bill was released, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R–Ohio), while commending the House Agriculture Committee on their efforts, also said “there are no decisions about it coming to the floor at this point”. In addition, a number of media reports suggested that Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R–VA) did not want to bring a potentially divisive bill to the floor of the House for debate because of political concerns in an election year. This essentially prevented any further action on the bill for the time being.

DROUGHT

In the meantime, the drought continues to get worse across the United States. USDA is adding disaster declarations for counties almost daily.  It is estimated that approximately 80 percent of the U.S. is experiencing some level of drought. This adds political pressure to the House, as farmers voice their need for relief, and it becomes apparent that the political fallout for not voting on a farm bill (which includes disaster aid) can be momentous in an election year.

INTERNAL DISSENT

With no further farm bill action and impending political disaster, 82 members of the House take part in a bipartisan effort to get things moving along. On July 20, they sent a letter to Speaker Boehner, imploring him to allow the House to vote on their version of the farm bill.  Collin Peterson (D–Minnesota), a ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee had this to say:

“There is no excuse not to bring the farm bill to the floor.  We’ve wasted the last two weeks on political messaging bills that are going nowhere.  If the House Republican Leadership were serious about creating jobs and growing our economy they would bring up this bill.  There is no good reason to put one of our nation’s economic bright spots, the rural economy, at risk.”

AGRICULTURE APPROPRIATIONS? NO, SEQUESTRATION

With so much attention going towards farm bill activity, or lack thereof, it may have been easy to lose sight of the fact that an agriculture appropriations bill for FY2013 has not been passed yet either. An appropriations bill would lay out where money can be spent in the coming fiscal year.  So, in the absence of an appropriations bill, the growing concern that passing a cost-saving five-year farm bill is unrealistic adds to the general budget problems facing the Congress.

Last year with the collapse of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, a bill was approved to initiate automatic budget cuts at the end of this year if a budget agreement is not reached.  That automatic processing, cutting both domestic and military budgets, is called sequestration. Both the House and the Senate passed separate sequestration bills outlining how the automatic cuts would be distributed on July 18 and 25, respectively.  These bills require the Obama Administration to outline where spending cuts will occur if sequestration is invoked. Sequestration, if implemented without a corresponding farm bill, will lead to $15 to $16 billion in farm bill cuts over the next ten years.

EXTENSION BILL

More time goes by, and are we any closer to a farm bill? Not quite. On July 27, in a surprise move by House Republicans, rather than push forward with the original bill that was designed by the House Ag Committee, they released a one-year extension to the current farm bill. Contrary to what might make sense in a time of drought, this extension bill significantly cut conservation efforts, and other programs that support farmers and rural communities, the very programs that could help farmers combat a drought. The extension bill also continued the costly and controversial “direct payment” program, which both the House and Congress had opted to eliminate in their separate versions of the farm bill.

The situation is not looking good for anyone who was hoping for a legitimate five-year farm bill.

DISASTER AID PACKAGE

Though the one-year extension might have satisfied the House leadership’s desire to block the passing of a five-year bill, it seems that they eventually came to the decision that the one-year extension is a not only a political loss for those in a favor of a five-year bill but for themselves, as well. With mounting pressure, they pull the extension plan the day before they are scheduled to vote on it, instead supporting a disaster assistance plan.

This House-drafted disaster assistance plan made appropriations to provide aid to some cattle and sheep farmers affected by the drought, but left others to fend for themselves. Farmers such as those involved in poultry, pork, dairy, and specialty crop production would receive no aid at all through this bill. Additionally troublesome was that this disaster aid would have been paid for by cuts to conservation, again the exact programs that could be effective in improving agricultural production conditions in the future.

Unfortunately, a dedicated five-year farm bill would have provided disaster aid and more, and would have pre-empted the need for a separate disaster aid package, but that broader bill seems to be perpetually on hold.

Again, here’s Collin Peterson:

“The Agriculture Committee’s farm bill not only includes the livestock provisions we’re considering today, it also strengthens the farm safety net for a wide range of commodities. A five-year farm bill will do a better job of providing certainty for American agriculture and assistance during this period of drought…. this bill is a sad substitute for what is really needed – long-term farm policy. I will continue to urge my colleagues to bring up the Agriculture Committee’s five-year farm bill to ensure that all producers will have the necessary assistance during times of disaster

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

Yesterday, August 2, was the last day of work for Congress before they adjourn for summer recess. In a last-ditch effort, the House managed to pass a $383 million disaster aid package for livestock farmers. This, however, turned out to be another failed attempt because the Senate decided not to consider the bill before the recess, instead supporting the bipartisan, five-year farm bill that they had passed earlier in the summer.

CONCLUSION

Thus, with no agreement between the two branches of Congress, farmers suffering from the severe drought will not receive the aid they desperately need any time soon. And, with Congress officially away on summer recess, no further forward momentum will occur until they return in September.

And so, we continue to wait.

Photo: Hartlepool Cultural Services. No known copyright restrictions.

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