The last U.S. Congress, stumbling along the fiscal cliff, fearful of public angst over potential doubling and tripling milk prices, extended the farm bill for nine months. That was not a victory for anyone, certainly not for farmers.
It was, according to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, “absolutely amazing.” She was amazed because behind closed doors, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed to a nine-month extension of the 2008 farm bill that changed nothing — not policy or funding.
It ignored a bipartisan extension of the farm bill negotiated by Stabenow and Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. It certainly left out the consensus on eliminating direct payments to farms, a big hitch in the public’s view of federal farm programs.
“There’s no way to explain this other than agriculture is just not a priority,” Stabenow said.
That echoed what U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has been saying. President Barack Obama has asked Vilsack to stay on as ag secretary in his second term. Back in December, with the fiscal cliff fast approaching, Vilsack told farm leaders that the nation didn’t have a farm bill because agriculture has “become less and less relevant to the politics of this country.”
These comments by key farm officials in Washington set the stage for a new Congress and renewed expectations for writing a farm bill, hopefully a five-year farm bill, which has been the tradition.
The two congressional agriculture committees have done a great deal of work that should not go to waste. There was the agreement on eliminating direct payments, a certain amount of consensus on disaster insurance and cuts in spending from $20 billion to $30 billion over 10 years. The work done by the committees should have gotten a bipartisan majority in the House and Senate.
In the House of Representatives, the stumbling block to a five-year farm bill was the rapidly growing food and nutrition programs that represent about 85 percent of the USDA spending. Some kind of agreement has to be made over the level of spending for food stamps and other nutrition programs. As it is, production agriculture’s part of the farm bill is held hostage over philosophical disagreements on food and nutrition spending.
And while Stabenow, Vilsack and many farmers worry about the relevance of agriculture in Washington, it is the third biggest cabinet agency in spending, and farming represents 14 percent of the nation’s workforce.
A five-year farm bill must become a priority for the president and for Congress. It needs to be a bill that controls spending and provides smart support for the nation’s farmers and ranchers.