You're hired to draft bills, pass them, reach compromise with the Senate, send bills to the president. The U.S. House seems to have forgotten how to plow.
The current Farm Bill took effect five years ago, in 2007. Disaster coverage in the bill expired with the 2011 crop year. Now a 1930s-magnitude drought is plaguing farm country. Livestock and dairy farmers are especially hard hit.
While many hard working family farmers are in peril, a new Farm Bill is held up in the House of Representatives by politics.
Earlier this year the U.S. Senate considered and passed thoughtful legislation. Members of the House Agriculture Committee have written their own bill, too. The two versions have differences. Ordinarily, the way those differences would be resolved is by passing each bill in each legislative body, combining and sending the bills to committee where final language would be written, and sending the compromise to the President for his signature.
That process has always worked before. Problem is, Republican leadership refuses to bring the House bill to a vote.
The amount of money allocated to USDA amounts to about 2% of the entire Federal budget (hardly a budget-buster). House members and staff whom Farmers Union spoke with in Washington told us that’s not the problem; in fact, just 20% of USDA spending is for actual farm programs like crop insurance and conservation.
If only 20% of Farm Bill spending goes directly to farms, where does the rest go? About 64% is for food and nutrition programs for four groups: elderly people whose retirement (Social Security) income is inadequate, low-wage workers, children, and the disabled.
Critics point to fraud and misappropriation as reasons why the food program should be curtailed, but according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, USDA has reduced fraud and mistakes to below 1% for food programs known as SNAP (formerly the food stamp program). That compares to fraud and mistaken payments in farm programs amounting to about 7%.
Is the need for food assistance real? Having served on a local rural school board where many students qualified for free and reduced meals, I believe it is. Could that spending be trimmed? That is not an issue; it will be trimmed. The Senate cut $4 billion from food programs in its bill. The House Ag Committee cut $16 billion.
But the House bill must be voted on and passed before anything can happen.
On September 12th a broad coalition of over eighty farm groups supported a rally beside the Capitol Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., to support enactment of a 5-year farm bill. Many titles in the current bill expire this month. The House has managed to pass a very small band-aid disaster bill that would be paid for with deep cuts to farm conservation programs. The coalition, besides asking for a Farm Bill, asked the Senate not to accept stand alone disaster aid because U.S. family farms stood to lose even more by accepting it.
Also, these times call for a farmer-owned equivalent of the “strategic oil reserve” – a reserve of food and feed grain.
We have surpassed early Farm Bill goals for market clearing prices. The new problem is wide price and supply variation caused by unpredictable weather and markets. Markets responsible for long-term farm profitability—for things like renewable fuels and DDG by-products, exports, livestock feed, and food production– all are at risk due to extreme market volatility. A study commissioned by the National Farmers Union created a concept known as a voluntary Market Driven Inventory System (MDIS). MDIS enrollments and releases would be entirely voluntary, based on preset price triggers.
But we all know that in order to grow it, someone first has to plant it. The Farm Bill is seed money for our nation’s food supply and more.
Congress should be sowing the crop.
Richard Oswald is a fifth generation Missouri farmer, president of the Missouri Farmers Union and a regular Daily Yonder columnist. This editorial first appeared in Missouri Farmer Today.