Will the Drought Push the Farm Bill Through Congress this Year?

Author: Kate Fitzgerald

After a flurry of activity, Congress closed shop for five weeks on August 3 without passing either a new five-year farm bill or legislation to address the immediate drought crisis. The stumbling blocks are the same ones that have stymied many bills during the bitterly divided 112th Congress. In the case of the farm bill, the division is between a wing of the House Republican party that wants to see deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) and Democratic members who reject reductions in SNAP spending during the country’s continuing economic situation.

The House Agriculture Committee passed the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act on July 12, 2012, but House leadership was unwilling to bring it to the floor for a vote and was forced to pull a one-year farm bill extension from consideration when it became clear that it would not pass either. Finally, the House passed a limited drought assistance bill paid for with cuts to key conservation programs. The Senate did not take up the measure, arguing it was unnecessary since the farm bill it passed in June includes more comprehensive disaster provisions.

Farm groups from across the political spectrum are united in supporting the Senate’s position that short-term drought assistance is an inadequate substitute for passing a comprehensive farm bill. The health and anti-hunger communities generally support a full extension of the farm bill and are pleased with some of the provisions that support better access to healthy food, but they are hard-pressed to rally behind legislation that reduces SNAP spending. However, prospects look dim for a more generous farm bill in 2013, when the fiscal pressures will not have eased.

Representatives and Senators are home for the August recess, but leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees may spend time during the month working toward a compromise bill that could conceivably pass both chambers and be signed into law, perhaps attached to a larger piece of legislation in the post-election, lame-duck session.

Both the House and Senate bills include good local food system provisions including SNAP incentives for local fresh fruits and vegetables, better technology for SNAP EBT use at farmers’ markets, facilitating SNAP use at CSAs (community supported agriculture), and doubling of the Community Food Projects and Farmers Market Promotion Programs. Click for more information on the Senate’s Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act and the House Agriculture Committee’s Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act.

Areas of hottest debate will be the around commodity program reforms, crop insurance, and the SNAP program. Last week President Obama forcefully called on Congress to pass a farm bill, signaling that the White House is now engaged in the process. In 2010 it was the First Lady’s high-profile support for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act that finally pushed that child nutrition bill to successful passage. The future of the 2012 farm bill will be clearer when Congress reconvenes on September 10 after having spent more than a month hearing from constituents, many of whom live in the 80% of the country suffering from drought and the hottest temperatures in more than 100 years.

Members of Congress need to hear what is important to their constituents, so now is the time to let them know about farm bill programs you care about.   You can call or email their offices for the schedule of town halls or public meetings they will be hosting, invite them to events in your community, or simply leave a message about your views with the local office.  You can get contact information for all Members of Congress easily here.