Amid disputes over the debt ceiling, government shutdown, and Affordable Care Act, Congress missed its Sept. 30 deadline to pass a new farm bill. That’s Sept. 30, 2012.
So here we are again, on the brink of losing programs that are critical to all Americans, families and family farmers alike. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day, without the comedy.
Some in Washington say that yet another extension of the current farm bill is the only solution, given time constraints. That’s an unacceptable cop-out, and those who call for it do not have the interests of family farmers, ranchers, or hungry Americans in mind.
The House and Senate have passed separate versions of a comprehensive, five-year farm bill. They need to resolve their differences and enact a compromise bill before year’s end.
A new bill is crucial to our nation’s food supply, rural communities, the overall health of the economy, and energy security. An extension would leave farmers and disadvantaged families crippled by uncertainty.
Extending current farm programs would mean, among other things, continuing a costly direct payment program that will cost as much as $10 billion over the next two years. Paying farmers regardless of commodity prices is indefensible, outdated, and ineffective.
A new bill would end these payments. In their place, it would create a safety net that provides support in the event of natural disasters or long-term market collapse — not when the economy is strong.
In 2010, the United States agreed to pay Brazil $147 million a year to settle a long-running trade dispute over cotton. Those payments were designed to prevent retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods, based on a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling against a program of cotton payments to U.S. farmers.
The House and Senate farm bills would bring the cotton program into compliance with WTO rules, eliminating the need for this unnecessary use of taxpayer funds. Without a new bill, the United States has no choice but to keep paying the settlement or face costly consequences imposed by our competitors.
An extension also would leave dozen of important programs without funding. These programs support beginning farmers and ranchers, farmers’ markets, organic farmers and ranchers, farmers who produce homegrown renewable energy, and livestock producers who must cope with natural disasters.
Congress is engaged in a philosophical debate about the farm bill’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. Some lawmakers, in Ohio and elsewhere, believe the programs’ current level of benefits and eligibility requirements are appropriate, particularly in this challenging economic time.
Others believe — erroneously — that the program is fraught with waste, fraud, and abuse. They want to cut funding and benefits to vulnerable families.
An extension of the current farm bill would be inadequate from both perspectives. Lawmakers who want to preserve current funding for this vital safety-net program should welcome the long-term policy certainty a five-year bill would provide, rather than leaving SNAP vulnerable to cuts year after year.
And those who seek to cut SNAP funding won’t achieve any of the so-called reforms they desire without a new bill. An extension merely perpetuates the status quo.
A separate House bill that deals only with the SNAP program would leave as many as 6 million Americans ineligible for full benefits, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates. The measure is a waste of time, since neither the Senate nor President Obama would support it.
Instead of passing an extension of the current farm bill that merely kicks the can down the road, Congress must preserve the historic coalition between farmers and consumers in need. That means a comprehensive five-year farm bill that includes both farm and nutrition programs.
Roger Wise is president of the Ohio Farmers Union and a farmer in Sandusky County.