The Food Security Act, otherwise more commonly referred to as the Farm Bill expires in September of 2012. Already, commodity organizations and various farm groups are filling out their “Christmas Wish List” as to what provisions they would like to see either added or eliminated in the next farm legislation. Keep in mind, of the $870 billion dollars allocated to the farm legislation; more than 70 percent goes to nutritional need programs, such as food stamps, school lunch programs, WIC, and other such federal programs. However, the focus of attention will be directly on the backs of America’s farmers in terms of commodity subsidies and direct payments.
It may be a difficult challenge for farmers and the various organizations that represent them, to proceed with a status quo position, particularly so when you consider the agricultural economy is the only aspect that is doing well in what otherwise is a depressed economy. No doubt, there will be pressure placed on Congressional Members to eliminate farm subsidies, or at the very least greatly reduce those subsidies. It is my guess that the same pressure may defend the current level of spending, or perhaps ask for an increase in allocated tax dollars for the nutritional needs programs. This pressure will be felt from all directions, even from past allies of agriculture, and as America sees fewer and fewer farmers, the agricultural voice may go from a roar down to a quiet whisper.
Farmers ought to use caution as they begin to visit with Congressional Members about the next farm legislation. My first prediction is the farm legislation will not be passed until after the elections. It is very likely it could become a “lame duck legislation”. I offer a couple of reasons for this prediction. First, during this last go around, the U-S Senate did not act in an appropriate timely manner. In fact, it wasn’t until March did the Senate finally push the farm legislation through its chamber. On the other hand, the House of Representatives, and in particular, the House Agricultural Committee led by then Ag committee chairman, Collin Peterson of Minnesota got a good early start on the proposed farm legislation, listening to various farm groups nearly two years prior to the expiration of the farm bill. The House passed their version of the farm bill in August, a month before the expiration of the bill, and certainly enough time for farmers to start figuring out how the new program would affect their farming operations.
I’m sorry to say the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee at the time was none other than Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin. At the time, Harkin believed there was a need to hear additional testimony, especially from groups representing social services. He was reluctant to bring the farm legislation up for a vote, until such time he thought there was sufficient testimony from the various social welfare organizations. Meanwhile, the present farm bill at the time was given an extension, then another extension, and even another extension. The calendar had turned over to the month of February and farmers had no idea as to what the final version of the farm bill would look like. More troubling still, were farmers and agricultural lenders alike who must have felt as though their hands were tied behind their backs, not knowing what programs and how much funding of those programs would survive the final farm bill. It wasn’t just commodity subsidies, but conservation programs were at jeopardy because the farmer simply did not know what to expect at a time when the farmer needed to make some serious decisions regarding long-term planting and crop rotations.
To complicate matters even more, at the time the Senate was about to act upon the farm legislation was when Massachusetts Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy passed away which created a whole new “musical chairs” scenario for the Senate chairs. As a result of Kennedy’s passing, Senator Harkin left the agriculture committee to chair the Health, Education and Labor committee, and Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln took over the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Even though Senator Lincoln was already on the Senate Ag. Committee, it is never-the-less quite an undertaking to direct the most important piece of legislation to go through your committee, having only a few weeks at the helm.
Getting back to my reasons why I believe the farm bill may end up being a “lame duck legislation”. Hard decisions will need to be made by Congressional members as to how much funding should be cut, not only as it relates to the farm bill, but with any legislation. There isn’t a politician alive that enjoys making those controversial decisions in the weeks and days leading up to an election. It is much easier to make the difficult decisions when either you know you will not be returning to Washington, or the next election is two years away.
I once had the opportunity to interview Kika De la Garza, a Texas democrat who at the time was the chair for the House Agricultural Committee. I asked him whether or not Congress would ever eliminate the federal subsidies given to America’s farmers? His reply was “I think the dome of the capitol would fall in before we eliminate farm subsidies.” Well Kika De la Garza has long since left Congress, but my suggestion is to his successors is you had better place more supports on the capitol dome, because America may not be as understanding, generous, or appreciative of agricultural subsidies.Dennis Morrice KLEM