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Farm Bill Next Victim of Obstructionist Politics?

Posted by | July 6, 2012

Last week I spent a few days in our nation’s capital commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act. We also took the opportunity to do some “hill visits” and meet with three of our members of Congress and two Senators. The great thing about rolling with President Floyd when doing visits to congressional offices is that you almost always get to see the member, in addition to his or her aides.

While the news from D.C. last week was dominated by the Supreme Court’s rulings on immigration and health care, my principal area of interest was the Farm Bill.

As you may know, the Senate did their work and passed their version of the Farm Bill on June 21. The Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012 was expedited after Senate leadership reached a unanimous agreement on the number of amendments to be considered. This bill is aptly titled, as passage of the Senate version of the Farm Bill constitutes major reform in agricultural commodity programs by removing direct payments and substituting a modified revenue insurance program. It is also responsive to Secretary Vilsack’s call to better market agriculture as a contribution to health, wellness, and economic development.

We have been working with our delegation throughout the year on the titles that matter most to us — namely the research and energy titles. We are appreciative of the work of our delegation (in both the Senate and House, and across both parties), as Title VII (Research, Extension, and Related Matters) fared reasonably well throughout the process. Most importantly, programs funded in the 2005 Farm Bill whose funding authority expires in September 2012 — programs such as the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, and the Clean Plant Network — were funded at reasonable levels. Sure, we would like to see more funding to research and extension, but given the fiscal realities of the federal government, we are satisfied with the programs and amounts included in the research title.

What is disturbing to hear is that many in Washington don’t believe that the Farm Bill will be passed before the November elections. This was the top headline of theRoll Call on Wednesday morning. The article beneath that troubling headline outlined the various political reasons why the Farm Bill is not likely to see the light of day on the floor of the House before the election. None of the reasons proposed could possibly be considered a reflection of good government or sound policy making. I will try to keep my comments politically neutral, but it is actions (in fact,inaction in this case) that leads to our federal government having its lowest approval rating in the history of our democracy.

We have the chance to invoke the most significant change in farm policy in several decades but, unfortunately, this badly needed legislation may be another victim of partisan politics.

My experience with Farm Bills dates back to 1996, to my time in the Ag Econ Department at Kansas State. At the time, Kansas held the offices of Secretary of Agriculture, Chair of the Ag Committee in the House, and Majority Leader of the Senate. Due to the relationships my friend and colleague Barry Flinchbaugh had with these three leaders (Glickman, Roberts, and Dole), K-State was afforded a significant position in developing and analyzing the economic consequences of the commodity provisions of the Bill. The result was one of the largest reforms in Farm Bill history: the Freedom to Farm Act. While commodity program payments were retained, the Bill did initiate a a phase out of payments and decoupled payments from production. Of course, two years later, the phase out was cut short and larger payments were re-instituted when commodity markets began to trend downward. Federal politics did not have the stomach to follow through with the more market-based approach to its end.

Fast forward 16 years and the Senate has passed a visionary piece of legislation that takes the quantum leap from direct payments to a reformed set of revenue insurance provisions. Barry Flinchbaugh used to always say that as long as there were two Senators from each state, there would always be commodity program payments. The basic premise being that the payments were important enough to the economic well-being of the “Farm States” that the Senate would come through with the income security of commodity payments. Fortunately, his axiom has been proven wrong. Kudos to the Senate and our Washington state Senators for their role in this reform.

Now, the House Ag Committee, led by Representative Lucas (a graduate of my former department at Oklahoma State University) appears ready to mark up a Bill and pass it on to the House leadership. We can only hope that the leadership of the House can see fit to govern and get at least one major piece of legislation passed this summer.