Uncertainty: The New Normal?

Author: Kate Fitzgerald

With two new budget and fiscal crises looming at the end of February and the end of March, Farm Bill program reductions are again being offered as a way to avert across-the-board governments cuts referred to as “sequestration.”

Senate Democrats offered a package last week that would provide $55 billion in savings and $55 billion in increased revenue over ten years through a combination of agriculture and defense program cuts and closing tax loopholes. All of Washington is focused on resolving these immediate decisions and other legislation will not proceed until that is done.

Senator Stabenow (D-MI), Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, explained the proposal’s agriculture provisions would eliminate the direct payment program, the most egregious of farm subsidies that automatically pays farmers based on their past production and irrespective of the current profitability of their farms. This reform would save $31 billion. From those potential savings $3.5 billion would be reinvested in key USDA programs whose funding expired with the last Farm Bill on September 30, 2012. This includes disaster assistance for tree fruit growers and livestock, rural development programs, and support for local and regional food systems.

The sequester’s draconian approach to budget cutting seemed so unthinkable that it forced compromise when it was agreed to in August 2011 is now looking increasingly likely. Following quickly on sequestration’s heels is the March 27 expiration of the legislation funding current government programs. Congress will spend the next six weeks tackling these immediate financial issues and all other pieces of substantive legislation, including the Farm Bill, will take a back seat.

When the air clears in late March, the Congressional Agriculture Committees will begin the work of crafting their 2013 versions of a Farm Bill. Both Committees will use the bills that passed last year as their basic templates, accommodating the priorities of new committee members and working within new, reduced funding limits. (See the Senate’s 2012 bill here  and the House’s version here.)

The Senate is expected to begin work first, and Senator Stabenow continues her strong commitment to programs that support sustainable regional food systems, including beginning farmer programs and new marketing opportunities for small and mid-sized farmers. Senator Thad Cochran’s (R-MS) new role as Ranking Member of the Committee will probably result in more deference to the needs of Southern commodity crops, including rice, peanuts, and cotton.

House Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) has asked his members for their Farm Bill priorities and notified them to expect considering bill in late spring.

With the current fiscal and budget uncertainty, it is also possible that the Farm Bill will not be considered in the usual, orderly manner but as part of a larger comprehensive budget process. This would require all committees to rewrite the programs under their jurisdiction within new spending limits provided by a larger budget agreement. As Congress lurches from crisis to crisis, what might have seemed unusual several years ago is quickly becoming the new normal.

The process uncertainty highlights the importance of maintaining regular contact with your members of Congress to let them know about the good work happening in the districts they represent. Members rely on their constituents for the information they need to make informed decisions. Representatives and Senators are usually home for one week every month, and that time is dedicated to hearing from you. Take advantage of it!   You don’t need to talk about legislation – just let them know about the work you are doing and the impact it is having on their communities. You can find a Congressional schedule here.