Farm Bill Flameout-What's Next?

By Bruce Knight

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The sun came up this morning despite the failure yesterday of the farm bill.   That the House of Representatives failed to reach agreement on a new farm bill is surprising, disappointing and precedent-setting.  But, in the normal legislative process, many bills go down to defeat.  That's because compromise is essential, but often hard to come by.  Yet it's the only way to get legislation passed in a highly partisan environment.

Now the challenge is for a working coalition of folks to identify tweaks in the bill that can produce the couple dozen votes necessary for a majority of members to approve the bill.  Those changes will need to bring in new supporters who can vote for the legislation without alienating current proponents of the bill.  That's a challenging task.  But we elected our legislators to rise above challenges and work together for the common good.

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As I see it, the additional votes necessary to pass the bill will have to come from more than one group of advocates.  There simply aren't two dozen votes available from members whose primary issue or concern is SNAP and nutrition reform, or dairy, or crop insurance or conservation.  We've got to move beyond the narrow focus of individual issues to the broader concerns of minimizing federal costs while preserving necessary and beneficial farm and nutrition programs.  

Is compromise possible at this point?  Yes, I think so.  I believe we can still get a good new farm bill.  Will it be easy?  No, nothing seems to be easy in the current environment.  But I remain optimistic.   

While I think yesterday's defeat of the House version of the farm bill took the wind out of everyone's sails, it does not have to mean all "doom and gloom" as seems to be the prevailing mood.  Thankfully, we have evolved from a time when farm bills determined profitability and returned to a time when profit is once again determined in the marketplace. We can make it through this current challenge and actually learn from the lessons for the future if we do not lose our resolve.  

However, today we are at a fork in the river.  Choosing which direction to take is not as simple as it may appear.  Will leadership in the House of Representatives tack to the center or tack to the right to gain the votes for final passage of a farm bill?  The farm/nutrition alliance that has successfully moved previous farm bills appears to be unraveling.  I fear that if this alliance falls apart, we will miss out on the opportunity for meaningful reforms of both nutrition programs and farm programs.  That would be the real failure of a failed farm bill.

The House and the Administration need to move back toward the pragmatic, bipartisan approach that has proven successful in the past.  If the farm bill veers down a partisan course in the House, then passage of a final bill is impossible.  A partisan bill coming out of the House will founder when it reaches the House-Senate conference committee, and all the effort put into the bill will be for naught.  I pray that is not the case.    

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.

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