View from the Levee: The Farm Bill Slog

Eighty years ago this month, Congress enacted a precedent-setting national farm bill as part of FDR’s first hundred days. The pace of agriculture legislation has slowed considerably in more recent years. 

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If this first session of the 113th Congress can pass what has become a three-year slog to rewrite the 2008 farm bill, American farmers, ranchers and consumers will operate under what will be the nation’s 17th consecutive farm and food law.

That’s saying a lot, however, as the 20 members of the U.S. Senate Ag Committee and 46 members of the U.S. House of Representatives Ag Committee can’t even agree on the name of the bill.

The Senate’s version is the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act; the House’s version, the Federal Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, or FARRM. (Hint: In today’s polarized Congress make certain your bill’s title features the word “reform” early and prominently.)

Today’s snail-like farm bill pace is nothing new.

The 2008 farm bill was, in fact, the 2007 farm bill that went nowhere until Congress finally passed it in May 2008. President George W. Bush then vetoed it — twice, but one time didn’t count because of a legislative foul-up — and Congress overrode the veto a month later to finally finish the two-year task.

You may not notice the farm bill, but you would if it wasn’t around because some element of it — food inspections, pesticide testing, school lunch programs, food stamps, the U.S. Forest Service — touches every American several times every day. 

The very idea of a nationwide farm law, however, is relatively new. It was born in the Great Depression when Congress passed the first farm bill “to relieve the existing national economic emergency by increasing agricultural purchasing power.” That was May 12, 1933, just 70 days after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inauguration.

“Conventional wisdom,” long-time University of Missouri ag economist Harold Breimyer later wrote in his memoir, “has it that President Roosevelt advocated and Congress enacted” the law because farm leaders asked for it.

“It’s more accurate,” Breimyer noted, “to say that Congress passed the new law because it was scared.”

The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 was just 33 pages long and appropriated $100 million to “provide emergency relief with respect to agricultural indebtedness” and “orderly liquidation of joint-stock land banks.”

By comparison, the cost of the five-year, 663-page 2008 farm bill was $288 billion. Preliminary, 10-year cost estimates for the pending 2013 bill approach $1 trillion.)

On Jan. 6, 1936, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional — it contained what the court deemed an illegal processor tax — and the law ended.

For all of 40 days.

In what is an inconceivable action today, Congress rewrote and approved an entirely new ag bill by Feb. 29, Leap Day, 1936. That law, titled the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allocation Program, not only reinstated most of the 1933 law but tied “farm programs” to soil conservation for the first time.

If Congress fails to keep farm legislation current, the law reverts to the farm bill of 1949 – the same year this vintage Massey-Harris Pony tractor rolled off the assembly line.
The legislation worked until World War II’s nearly insatiable demand for food and fiber lifted American farmers back to prosperity.

In fact, the farm bills on either side of the war, the 1938 Agricultural Adjustment Act and the 1949 Agricultural Act, are still working. The ’38 Act outlined supply management programs that the ’49 Act then institutionalized as “permanent law.”

And it is just that — permanent. Every subsequent farm bill (1954, 1956, 1965, 1970, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1985, 1990, 1996, 2002 and 2008) has included language that “suspends” the “permanent law” for the duration of the farm bill that is adopted.

Keeping the ’49 act serves two purposes. First, government is such a critical partner for American farmers and consumers that the underlying law guarantees neither will be without its food safety, market oversight and nutrition assistance.

Second, and perhaps more important, any return of the 1949 law would be fabulously expensive and a likely market disaster. As such, the threat of its return (as seen last Sept. 30 when the 2008 law was hurriedly extended for one year) forces Congress to work through its differences and complete a new farm law.

Number 17, the 2013 farm bill, is now — finally — making its way through Congress. Its policies and programs will affect every American every day.

At least those who eat every day.

Alan Guebert is an agriculture journalist who lives in central Illinois.

 

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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