Farm Bill Stalling – a Disaster in the Making
Commentary by Alan Merrill, MFU President
August 1, 2012
Montana right now is facing two kinds of disasters: the drought that is changing our physical landscape, and the unwillingness of Congressional leadership in the House to act responsibly and immediately on Farm Bill legislation.
The Farm Bill is an extensive, omnibus piece of legislation that is reauthorized roughly every five years. ‘Farm bill’ is really a misnomer, because although the legislation does contain a number of provisions that are critical to family farmers, ranchers, and fruit and vegetable growers, more than 75 percent of the bill’s funding is allocated for nutrition assistance for the underprivileged, both in the United States and abroad.
Much of the remaining provisions relate to rural business development, incentives for renewable energy production, and protection of our country’s most precious natural resources. So, the farm bill is really a food, energy and jobs bill that should concern us all.
Montana Farmers Union is calling for Congress to pass the Farm Bill before it expires on September 30, 2012. Here is the timeline we are dealing with: The U.S. Senate passed farm bill legislation in mid June. The House Agriculture Committee passed its legislation on July 11. Since then little interest has been expressed by House leadership to move the bill to the House floor. Now, with the current 2008 Farm Bill set to expire early this fall, the U.S. House leadership changes its mind daily on how to proceed.
First they stalled; next they proposed a one-year extension of the current bill; the latest suggestion is to address the disaster situation in the country in a stand-alone bill. We still don’t know the plan for the next five years.
On the surface an extension may seem like a reasonable plan given that the House has just 12 working days from July 30 through the end of September. But, as with many things, there is more to the story. The proposed one-year extension is a ploy that won’t be helpful to Montana agriculture. Unlike the 1996 and 2002 farm bills, there are significant consequences with a straight extension of the 2008 farm bill. If there is an extension, a total of 37 programs will go unfunded because discretionary – not mandatory funding – was attached to them. The one-year extension will cut the conservation title. It also cuts mandatory funding from beginning farmer and rancher programs, renewable energy efforts, direct-to-consumer marketing programs and others.
The Senate’s bill retains many of these 37 programs – funded with savings elsewhere in the bill. The same is true of the House Agriculture Committee’s bill that passed out of committee. However, if the 2008 bill is extended, the House will have to re-write their bill to either find an additional $9 billion to pay for the 37 programs, or restructure their bill to make up for the loss of these programs.
With the budget situation the government is facing and the lack of political interest among House leadership, the chances of finding an additional $9 billion dollars is next to zero.
National Farmers Union is on record that it will only support an extension if the next step is to conference a comprehensive five-year farm bill before the September 30 expiration date. We agree. There is much at stake that we don’t want to lose, including disaster assistance, which is essential throughout the country.
Much of the country is in the midst of an historic drought, and disaster programs are among the 37 programs that have already or will permanently expire without a new farm bill. Our country’s farmers and ranchers deserve some assistance and certainty during this critical time. According to the national press, over the past 50 years never has the House Agricultural Committee approved a bill out of committee and House leadership not brought it to the floor for a full vote.
While the working time available is short between now and the end of September, with sufficient political will there is time to pass a Farm Bill before it expires. We call on a bipartisan effort to do so.
Montana Farmers Union is a statewide, grassroots organization that for almost 100 years has worked for strong family ranches and farms, has advocated for the members’ policies at the state and federal level, has worked for strong producer-owned cooperatives, and has provided education for all ages. Get to know us better at www.montanafarmersunion.com.