A review of the sausage-making process for what is current farm bill law is instructional.
It was supposed to be the 2013 Farm Bill. The previous bill covering farm commodity support, horticulture, livestock, conservation, nutrition assistance, international food aid, agricultural research, farm credit, rural development, bio-energy and forestry expired in 2012, and lawmakers should have passed its replacement in 2013.
Instead, lawmakers spent that year in a contentious debate over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and direct subsidy payments to farmers.
Congressional budget hawks and doves fought bitterly, leaving farmers wondering what crops to plant and how they might be reimbursed for losses should weather not cooperate.
Congress ultimately could not get its act together and belatedly approved a one-year extension of the expired 2008 Farm Bill. Confused yet?
In January 2014, after nearly three years of deliberations, Congress passed an omnibus farm bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law in February 2014. The nearly $1 trillion bill is a five-year spending plan on U.S. food programs such as food stamps, crop insurance, commodities, and conservation.
All that background is to say what has happened is just a warm-up act for deliberations, discussion and debate already underway for the NEXT Farm Bill in 2018.
I expect given the polarity of Congress, the negativity of the POTUS campaign and the feeling among congressional budget hawks that they have been financially had by the 2014 bill will make those discussions ugly and contentious.
The 2014 Farm Bill eliminated direct subsidy payments — money given to farmers for every acre they owned, regardless of whether it was planted. And it slightly reduced food stamp benefits by $8.7 billion over 10 years.
But the bill created two other revenue loss programs, negating any savings through direct payment elimination.
So it should be no surprise that the aforementioned budget hawks are sharpening their knives. The Heritage Foundation — admittedly not a friend to farmers — is already making its case for completely eliminating commodity-support programs as well as crop insurance.
The D.C.-based conservative think tank’s lobby arm, Heritage Action, thinks farmers don’t need taxpayer dollars. It believes federal crop insurance should only protect farmers against disaster or catastrophic losses.
And the Heritage Foundation is also demanding Congress remove SNAP from the farm bill.
Oh, yeah, and ending the U.S. Sugar Program.
Now, you might be saying: “But this isn’t all that new. The Heritage Foundation has been making these sort of arguments for years.” And you would be right. But farm groups are already working hard not to let Heritage Foundation write the narrative and set the agenda.
It’s fair to say that often the interests of the National Farmers Union and the American Farm Bureau Federation are not aligned. But both farm groups wasted no time in panning the Heritage Foundation.
NFU president Roger Johnson essentially said the Heritage Foundation are bumpkins when it comes to farming and ranching.
“Farming can be a pretty thankless job, especially when you are a family who is financially struggling to keep producing food that feeds consumers around the world while a multi-million-dollar organization is trying to pull the plug on your life line,” Johnson said.
And AFBF Executive Director for Public Policy Dale Moore says Heritage has “declared war” on Congressional agricultural committees and is seeking to do “everything they can to throw a wrench into the (agriculture) gear set.”
Here’s the thing: Ask any farm industry group, and they’ll tell you it is becoming increasingly difficult to protect farmer commodity programs while Congress is continually demanding cuts to overall spending in an environment where the federal deficit in August hit nearly $621 billion in the current fiscal year and stands at $19.4 trillion overall.
Making the pending 2018 debate even more complex and likely cantankerous is that both cotton farmers and dairy producers are demanding new revenue protections. And the fact that the U.S. is becoming more urban than rural, reducing the pool of lawmakers that truly care about farming. And how the POTUS campaign may have fractured the GOP, making Congressional farm policy going forward largely unknown.
Here is the bottom line: It is increasingly urgent that farm groups do everything they can to forge bonds with Congress folk who support nutrition programs. Because if SNAP is cleaved from the farm bill, there won’t be enough rural lawmakers left to protect farm interests.
About Dave Dickey
Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch