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Congress Should Not Pass a Lame Duck Farm Bill

Friday, November 16, 2012

With the elections finally behind us, Congress has returned to Washington to try to wrap up a slew of unfinished business. Among other things, lawmakers are grappling with how to revive the expired farm bill, while at the same time they must somehow address the looming “fiscal cliff” of higher taxes and crippling budget cuts that could drive the economy back into recession.

As always, past is prologue, particularly in politics. One year ago, when Congress was scrambling to come up with a compromise to prevent pending budget cuts, House and Senate agriculture leaders scrambled to put together a farm bill package to be inserted into the budget deal and passed without debate or amendment. Luckily, Environmental Working Group and others called attention to this “secret farm bill” and helped put on pressure to keep it out of the final deal.

This same scenario could play out again during the lame duck session. Rumors are rampant that agriculture leaders will try the same gambit again, squeezing the thousand-page, trillion-dollar farm bill into an overall tax and budget deal. This mega-legislation would presumably be passed very quickly in the few remaining legislative days of the year, without time for real discussion or opportunity for amendment.

While the shape of a proposed farm bill is no longer quite so secret, it would be an absolute perversion of the process to pass a farm bill without allowing a full and proper debate. This unique legislation affects every single taxpayer and everyone who eats, from school children to the working poor to soccer moms shopping at farmers markets – not to mention the farmers who are usually most closely associated with, and fixated on, the bill.

Every member of Congress has an interest in the farm bill, and each should have his or her opportunity to improve it. And there are lots of ways to improve the versions that are currently on the table, particularly the House bill, which has never been considered on the floor.

The 100 members of the Senate filed 304 amendments to the farm bill when it came before them, covering nearly the entire range of issues in it… and then some. Not all were ultimately considered, but there was a regular process for bringing the bill to the floor and for debating dozens of amendments.

Ultimately, a number passed, making the Senate bill better for taxpayers, eaters, farmers and the environment. Specifically, the Senate voted to lower insurance subsidies to the most affluent farm operations, to require basic environmental safeguards in exchange for subsidies, to give equitable treatment to organic farmers seeking insurance, and to restore funding for rural development and beginning farmers and ranchers.

The 435 members of the House deserve the same opportunity. The House version of the farm bill should be amended in the same ways. But there are literally hundreds of other amendments that could – and should – be offered, from both sides of the aisle. Here is just a short list of priority amendments that should be debated before the House passes any version of the farm bill:

  • Reduce the federal revenue guarantee. If farmers want to purchase insurance to protect against losses in revenue, they already can do so. Additional revenue guarantees are costly and create perverse incentives.
  • Reduce or eliminate the proposed pay raise for commodity farmers in the form of higher price guarantees. Some of the new levels proposed in the House bill are well above historical prices and are almost certain to be triggered nearly every year. This adds up to much more than a “safety net” for difficult times.
  • Reduce or eliminate subsidies to profitable crop insurance companies, many of them owned or operated by huge corporations based in tax havens such as Bermuda.
  • Cap the amount of subsidies farmers get to buy crop insurance. Other farm subsidies have payment limits; placing similar limits on insurance subsidies would save billions of dollars without affecting the vast majority of farmers.
  • Ensure that the public can find out who is collecting insurance subsidies. This information is currently kept secret.
  • Allow USDA to save money by negotiating a better deal with insurance companies. The House bill currently requires that any money saved through such negotiations be plowed back into other crop insurance programs rather than going to reduce the deficit.
  • Reduce the size of farmers’ crop insurance subsidies. Taxpayers currently pay 62 percent of the premiums, on average, and this would actually rise under the House bill. Subsidy rates were much lower until changes made in 2000.
  • Bring the cotton program in line with the World Trade Organization settlement that the U.S. reached with Brazil. Changes should include eliminating import quotas, economic assistance to cotton users, competitiveness payments and export subsidies.
  • Eliminate the special treatment for cotton producers under the crop insurance section of the House bill. Lobbyists for the industry sought and got a program that would be much more generous than that for other crops – a proposal that would compound the trade dispute with Brazil.
  • Eliminate the sugar program, which distorts international markets, costs consumers billions of dollars a year in higher sugar prices and benefits just a handful of sugar-growing businesses.
  • Lower the profit guarantee enshrined in the House’s proposed new dairy program. Dairy farmers would be guaranteed that the price for their milk would always exceed their feed costs. This is much more generous than the current protection against low prices.
  • Increase funding for major conservation initiatives such as the Conservation Reserve and Conservation Stewardship Programs. Conservation has already been slashed in recent years to pay for other programs and should not be cut again to finance new subsidies for farm millionaires.
  • Increase support for cooperative conservation through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. When farmers work together, conservation investments are more durable.
  • Provide more funding for local farm and food infrastructure and to expand markets to underserved populations.
  • Improve the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program by focusing more money on projects that increase consumption of fruits and vegetables by low income or underserved populations.
  • Restore proposed cuts to SNAP (formerly food stamps). Now is not the time to reduce or eliminate benefits for millions of poor Americans struggling in a weak economy.
  • Eliminate a sweeping provision that prevents states from regulating their own food and farming products when those regulations would conflict with other states.

This is just the beginning! Clearly, a host of important issues need to be debated and considered carefully in the farm bill, particularly at a time when budget deficits require smarter spending. Each one deserves careful consideration on its own merits, not just as wholesale targets for budget savings to fund other parts of the government.

The waning days of this “do-nothing Congress” are not the time to ram a farm bill down America’s throats. In this particular case, Congress would be well advised to continue doing nothing and instead pass a responsible extension of current law – and give itself time to properly consider a full farm bill next year.