Farm Bill free fall

Farm Bill free fall
Used under creative commons license from cwwycoff1

Just when you thought Congress couldn’t screw up the Farm Bill any worse, they surprise us all. As part of a fiscal cliff, New Year’s Day bender, Congress and the White House extended a barebones version of the Farm Bill for yet another nine months—giving the bumbling legislative body more time to further decimate the nation’s main farm and food policy.

The Farm Bill extension, apparently written largely by powerful Republican Senator Mitch McConnell and VP Joe Biden, continues existing commodity programs (including controversial direct payments), keeps the food stamp program largely intact, and provides a temporary extension of the dairy program. But there’s a long list of what it doesn’t do, including funding extension for 37 programs. It also doesn’t include immediate emergency relief to livestock producers and fruit growers still dealing with the damaging effects of the ongoing drought. The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), a critical program supporting agroecology, can’t sign up new farmers to participate in 2013. Other programs that received no mandatory funding include a host of renewable energy programs, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher program, rural development programs and organic and specialty crop research programs.  Additionally, an important pilot program for local and regional procurement of international food aid was not funded. (See excellent summaries of the deal by the National Farmers Union and the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture).

Aside from the program bloodletting, perhaps most jarring was the complete disdain Congressional leadership had for the Farm Bill itself and the Agriculture Committee Chairs in cutting this deal. Leadership in the Senate and House Agriculture Committees had reportedly agreed to an extension over the weekend, but that agreement was scrapped and agriculture committee representatives were cut out of the final fiscal cliff deal-making. This comes after the House leadership refused—since July—to bring the Farm Bill to a vote, with very little political cost to pay. As Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow said on the Senate floor, “There is absolutely no way to explain this other than agriculture is just not a priority.”

What does this mean for the future of the Farm Bill? The next Congress will start from scratch, with the House expected to start working on a new Farm Bill in late February. The Farm Bills that came out of the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee last year will likely be a starting point. But we can also expect that the budgets will be even tighter when Congressional Budget Office issues a new Farm Bill baseline budget in March, so even more cuts will be needed. Two big disagreements remain: one over the shift of commodity programs toward a revenue insurance model (which due to climate change may ultimately result in higher government payouts), and the desire by Tea Party activists to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Politically, it is largely the same players at the Agriculture committees, Congressional leadership and at the White House, all trapped within the same budget-cutting straightjacket. It’s hard to see how real reform can emerge in 2013. But of course, things could get much worse.

In the bigger picture, the New Year’s madness reflects a major blow to the stature of the Farm Bill as an effective policy instrument. It wasn’t farmer or rural interests that drove the final deal, but the threat of higher milk prices for consumers. Even under optimal conditions, the Farm Bill has largely turned a blind eye to some of the biggest issues in the agriculture and food system: climate change, fair prices for all farmers, corporate concentration and marketplace competition, and the treatment of food workers.

In the future, the big policy changes needed in our farm and food system may need to come from beyond the Farm Bill. There are many policy approaches bubbling up at the community and state level, and even in other countries, that could serve as a basis for a new agenda grounded in resiliency (to environmental and economic instability), justice for farmers, workers and consumers, health throughout the food chain, and food sovereignty (community control and ownership of the food system). We can’t afford any more Congressional surprises.