The Farm Bill: Hanging from the Cliff

Author: Kate Fitzgerald

Pre-dawn on New Year’s Day, the Senate passed a bill to temporarily avert the “fiscal cliff,” a combination of tax increases and spending cuts that could have sent the economy plummeting back into recession. A surprise eight-month extension of the current Farm Bill was attached to the legislation, confounding Congressional agriculture leaders and dashing the hopes that a full five-year bill could be included in the package.

Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) crafted the final deal, ignoring more progressive and comprehensive provisions offered by the House and Senate Agriculture Committee chairs and supported by most of the agricultural and local food community.  The House quickly passed the legislation, officially ending the 112th Congress. The 113th Congress was sworn in two days later, and the process of writing a new Farm Bill will now start all over again.

The most obvious winners in the Farm Bill extension are growers of Southern commodity crops, who will get another year of direct payment farm subsidies. Direct payments are made to growers irrespective of what crops they grow or market prices and are seen as the most egregious of the farm subsidies. The extension provides inadequate conservation funding, no money for the marketing and rural development programs that are key to building healthy and resilient regional food systems, no disaster provisions for fruit and vegetable farmers or livestock producers hit hard by changing weather and high feed prices. It maintains funding for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, but cuts nutrition education funding by almost a third.

The fate of the 2012 Farm Bill is illustrative of both the best and the worst of the current Congressional miasma. The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees worked together civilly and offered cost-cutting compromise legislation in response to the call of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction in the fall of 2011 and again last month when they offered Vice President Biden and Senator McConnell a consensus extension provision.

The Committees in both chambers passed Farm Bills and the full Senate passed the Farm, Food and Jobs Act in June. The problem came in the House, where members were never given the opportunity to debate and vote on their Committee’s bill. The floor debate would have been rancorous, but it would also have permitted a full discussion of the bill’s many provisions. The vote would ultimately have reflected a compromise acceptable to the majority of members and allowed the democratic process to continue with a Senate and House conference committee appointed to negotiate the differences in the two chambers’ bills.

The 2013 Farm Bill process will begin in the Senate, where Senator Stabenow (D-MI) will continue as Chair of the Agriculture Committee and has announced that she will begin work on the new bill soon. The new Ranking Member of the Senate Committee is Thad Cochran (R-MS), which strengthens the voice for Southern agricultural interests. The House schedule is less certain. After announcing a Committee meeting on February 27, House Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) backtracked when Democratic Ranking Member Collin Peterson (DFL-MN) announced that he would not participate in the process without written assurance from House leadership that a Committee-passed bill would be brought to the floor. (A copy of Mr. Peterson’s letter to Speaker Boehner is available here).

Looming over all discussions is the need to address the debt ceiling and the deficit. The package Congress passed only delayed the crisis. The fate of the Farm Bill will continue to be tied up in these larger financial issues. Patience and vigilance will be required of all food system advocates in 2013.