More details on the farm bill extension Congress just approved

The U.S. Senate and the House Agriculture Committee approved versions of a new five-year farm bill last summer, but discontent within the House Republican caucus kept Speaker John Boehner from bringing the bill up for a vote in the full chamber. Iowa Republican Tom Latham signed a discharge petition seeking to force a vote, while Steve King promised to work toward passing the bill during the lame-duck session.  But Boehner never put the five-year farm bill on the House calendar.

With time running out before U.S. law reverted to the 1949 bill provisions, House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders agreed last week to push for a one-year extension of farm programs. But that bill never came up for a vote either. Instead, negotiators added a nine-month partial extension of farm programs to the “fiscal cliff” tax agreement. Since Tuesday I’ve been looking into the details of what Congress approved on farm policy. It’s not pretty.

The risk of a price spike for milk created the sense of urgency around extending farm programs.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Americans face the prospect of paying $7 for a gallon of milk if the current dairy program lapsed and the government returned to a 1948 formula for calculating milk price supports. […]

Instead of just extending current dairy policy, the extension bill includes an overhaul of dairy programs that was in both the Senate and House committee bills. The new dairy programs include a new, voluntary insurance program for dairy producers. Those who choose that new program would also have to participate in a market stabilization program that could dictate production cuts when oversupply drives down prices – an idea that hasn’t gone over well with Boehner.

During the final days of negotiations, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and the White House charted a different course. The Obama Foodorama blog notes,

The massive compromise deal postponed for just two months the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester, and the government has already gone over its debt limit, so that could mean pressure to try to finish a new Farm Bill in the next two months. Whenever it happens, the Secretary will be working with infuriated lawmakers and advocates, who rained criticism on the extension as soon as the Senate approved it Tuesday on a vote of 89 to 8.  

While it averts a spike in milk prices that would have rolled into effect with no action, the extension does not protect dairy farmers, but rather privileges large dairy corporations.  It does not include disaster aid, and keeps intact $5 billion in subsidy payments for commodity crop farmers while failing to fund what USDA identifies as “specialty” crops–fruits, vegetables and tree nuts.   It also slashes funding for organic agriculture, clean water initiatives, and beginning farmer and rancher projects.

During an impassioned speech on the Senate Floor on Tuesday, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., called it “absolutely outrageous” that other expired agriculture titles were not included in the extension agreement.  The 16 Democrats who voted against the legislation included House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn, who told Politico he was more than upset with the White House agreeing to the extension without new dairy legislation.

“‘Upset’ is an understatement,” Peterson said. “I’m not going to talk with those guys. I’m done with them for the next four years.”

National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jerry Kozak blasted the deal as “a devastating blow to the nation’s dairy farmers” that “amounts to shoving farmers over the dairy cliff without providing any safety net below.”

Stabenow did vote for the fiscal cliff deal in the Senate, but in a statement she released later, she commented,

“Rather than embrace the Senate’s bipartisan farm bill which cuts $24 billion in spending and creates certainty for our agriculture economy, Sen. McConnell insisted on a partial extension that reforms nothing, provides no deficit reduction, and hurts many areas of our agriculture economy.”

House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas also voted for the fiscal cliff bill, but ranking Democrat Peterson was one of just 16 House Democrats to vote against the deal on New Year’s Day.

The failure to extend the disaster assistance title is sure to become a problem this spring and summer, as floods or droughts hit parts of the country.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition called the farm bill extension deal “a disaster for farmers”:

Washington, DC – The farm bill extension deal reached in negotiations between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden is a disaster for farmers and the American people.  The nine month extension measure was attached to the bigger fiscal cliff bill and passed by the Senate early this morning and is coming up for a vote in the House later today.

The deal is blatantly anti-reform.  The full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee earlier this year agreed to permanently eliminate direct payment subsidies for commodity production regardless of price and income conditions, yet the deal would lock in those egregious subsidies for another full year at a $5 billion price tag.  On the other hand, many smaller, targeted programs to fund farm and food system reform and rural jobs, included in a weekend agreement between Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow and House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas, were left out completely.  Also left out of the final deal is any workable dairy policy for the next year and any disaster aid for livestock and fruit producers.  The deal also has the effect of keeping farmers from being able to improve soil and water conservation through enrollment in the Conservation Stewardship Program at the present time.  We are extremely disappointed in the Republican leadership for proposing this deal and in the White House for accepting it.  The message is unmistakable – direct commodity subsidies, despite high market prices, are sacrosanct, while the rest of agriculture and the rest of rural America can simply drop dead.

We commend the Agriculture Committee leadership for trying to pass a more responsible extension measure, and on behalf of our member organizations and the farmers they represent we recommit ourselves to getting a true farm and food bill reform measure passed in 2013.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is a grassroots alliance that advocates for federal policy reform supporting the long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and rural communities.

The Environmental Working Group struck a similar tone in a statement released yesterday:

WASHINGTON – Buried in the 150-page “fiscal cliff” tax bill passed New Year’s Day is a last-minute farm bill extension that buys time for Congress to craft and debate an improved measure to establish food and farm policy for the long haul.

But it comes at a cost. The extension perpetuates the widely discredited direct payment farm subsidies that will send $5 billion this year alone to large farming operations that already reap record profits.

“While a deeply flawed nine-month extension is marginally better than a deeply flawed five-year farm bill, this short-term band-aid is not good public policy,” said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group. “A responsible measure would have cut direct payments and insurance subsidies and fully funded important conservation programs. It is critical that Congress craft a farm bill this year that supports family farmers and protects the environment.”

Instead of eliminating the wasteful direct payments program, the bill passed by Congress shortly before midnight New Year’s Day cuts funding for organic agriculture, clean water, and beginning farmer initiatives.

“This extension reflects the skewed priorities that continue to produce a totally unbalanced farm and food policy,” Cox said. “Soil erosion, land conversion, and water pollution from farm chemicals are enormous challenges. Yet this extension will hobble a major conservation program, while channeling billions in cash payments to already highly profitable farm businesses. It makes little sense to cut support for organics, the fastest growing sector of the agriculture economy, and to curtail a long list of other initiatives designed to increase access to healthy food and create new economic opportunities for family farms.”

Congressional efforts to pass legislation authorizing food and farm programs for the next five years have been hampered by attempts by supporters of big agriculture to create new lavish insurance subsidies.

“This latest deal underscores for the good food movement why organizations like Food Policy Action are so important to the task of expanding federal government support for innovative food and agriculture policies,” Cox said. “Without significant pressure on Congress and the White House, we can be sure that efforts to improve access to healthy food and reduce dangerous chemicals in the environment will fail.”

Final depressing note: negotiators agreed to pay for the nine-month extension to dairy programs by cutting nutrition education. Stacy Dean comments,

When, in the new budget deal, Congress needed $110 million to extend current dairy programs, lawmakers looked not to savings from bipartisan reforms to farm subsidies that the House and Senate Agriculture Committees had crafted as part of their pending farm bill proposals.  Instead, Congress cut a nutrition education program that promotes healthy eating habits and physically active lifestyles for people of limited means.

This cut will reduce funding in 2013 for the nutrition education program, which is part of SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), by over 25 percent – from $394 million to $285 million.  The $110 million in savings will pay to extend current dairy programs through the end of fiscal year 2013.

The agriculture committees included an extension and reforms of dairy programs in their farm bill proposals and used savings from dairy and other farmer subsidy programs to finance these changes as well as to generate overall savings.  Instead of using this approach, budget negotiators reached instead for a nutrition program cut here.

On balance, I continue to believe it would have been better for Congress to reject the fiscal cliff deal.

Advocates for a saner food and agriculture policy have their work cut out for them in the new Congress. My money’s on no long-term farm bill passing this year either.

Login or Join to comment and post.