Deja-vu Farm Bill Debate, All Over Again

By Mark Edelman and Barry Flinchbaugh

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

ME.  Hall of Famer Yogi Berra's quote, “It's like Deja-vu, all over again” makes sense not only in baseball, but also in the farm bill debate.  This year and last year, both Ag Committees passed a farm bill and the Senate passed a farm bill.  Now we are ready for House floor action. So we've been here before. The question is whether the outcome will be different this year.  At least Speaker Boehner is supporting this year's version of the House Ag Committee bill.  Odds improve with leadership support.

BF. The Speaker voted against farm bills while he sat on the Ag Committee, and this Congress demonstrated leadership support doesn't assure passage. I predict the House debate could implode under the ilk of those who have been elected using confrontational politics.  There are 100 of the 435 House members who never participated in a farm bill debate before.  The odds are no better than 50-50 for the House passing a farm bill.  Democrats won't vote for a farm bill with $20 billion in SNAP food stamp cuts over 10 years, and the “Tea Party” Republicans won't vote for it without larger cuts.

Together we can feed the Bees

ME. I disagree.  I believe that farm state Republicans-tea party or not-now realize the uncertainty created by not passing a farm bill. First, there is always the threat of reversion back to archaic permanent farm legislation passed back in 1930s that would re-establish production quotas and high price supports, which make no sense in today's global economy.  Remember, we had an election since the last farm bill debate. The message sent by voters was interpreted by many pundits that the public was growing tired of Congress's confrontational blame game and inability to compromise to get things done. 

BF.  It is easier to kill a bill then to get one passed. For example, some farm country “wingnuts” want to carve out the food provisions from the farm bill into separate bills. This rant started last year and has become louder this year. They claim the division over SNAP food stamp spending will prevent passage and suggest the solution is to simply divide the question so they can vote for the part they favor and oppose the part they don't.  Such a novice approach fails to answer how farmers representing less than two percent of the population will garner a majority vote in Congress to pass the bill.  Farm state representatives already have a difficult time explaining farm policy to urbanites that have a wide majority in Congress.  What would be the carrot to gain urban support?  

ME.  On that point I agree.  For hypothetical purposes, let's assume that we carve out SNAP food stamps from the farm bill and just debate the rest of the legislation.  What is it that would generate urban support?  Maybe it is the environment.  The urban public wants clean air, clean water, and environmental protection.  While a majority of the nation's natural resources are located in rural areas, most urban voters are removed from practical knowledge of what it takes to manage farms, forests, and the nation's natural resources and related supply chains. As a result, urban environmental support in Congress is likely to be forthcoming only if there is demonstrated clean water, clean air, and environmental outcomes.  In an era of deficit reductions, incentives for environmental practices are often viewed to be more costly relative to regulatory approaches. Farmer surveys have shown that farmers typically favor voluntary incentives for conservation practices over regulatory approaches.  So if farm bill environmental policy is to be the carrot to gain urban support, the pathway for passage is still unclear.    

BF.  The recent flap over work by your colleague collaborating with environmental interests focused on reducing crop insurance incentives underscores my point that environment and conservation provisions are not a big carrot for ag interests to garner urban votes you are looking for.  Some are arguing that in addition to food stamps and nutrition the big issue will be the dairy program.  The House Ag Committee agrees with the Senate basically on dairy policy, which is a form of supply management supported by the dairy kings of the Congress, Peterson and Leahy.  This is a program that Speaker Boehner called “Soviet-style” last year. Clearly the House will try to change it on the floor. If it succeeds then what happens in conference?    

ME. Representative Conlin Peterson of Minnesota is Ranking Minority on the House Ag Committee and he backs the dairy insurance and stabilization plan, which has the support of the National Milk Producers Federation.  House Ag Committee Member and former Chair Robert Goodlatte of Virginia proposes an amendment to scale back the stabilization part of the plan.  He has the support of the Speaker and the International Dairy Foods Association which includes processors and manufacturers who use dairy products.  House Ag Committee Chairman Lucas was recently quoted saying that he is “caught between two raging bulls in a pasture” referring to those on both sides of the issue.  Lucas needs the support of both camps to garner enough votes for farm bill passage.  That is why it is important for agriculture interests to get together before the farm bill debate begins.

BF.  See, there are no other “big carrots” that provide a balanced trade-off. In a combined food and farm bill, there is a straight forward trade-off: Food stamp safety net for consumers and crop insurance safety net for producers.  If that is destroyed, there is no bargaining chip to get agreement in conference committee.  The urban vote in the House does not need the rural vote to appropriate funding for food stamps, but the rural vote needs the urban vote to pass farm bills. Then what happens? Suppose the House repeals the permanent legislation.  The Senate is more rural friendly than the House and there are not 60 Senate votes to follow suit.  Remember each state has 2 votes and even Rhode Island has some farmers. Just look at how the Senate voted, twice now on a farm bill.

ME.  That would mean more stalemate.  If those who espouse separating food programs from the farm bill rule the day, one might conclude that messaging back home becomes more important than compromise to get a farm and food policy done.   

BF.  Currently it is too close to call.  If you make me roll the dice, I will have to bet on a one year extension. I hope I am wrong.


* Mark Edelman is professor of Economics at Iowa State University and Barry Flinchbaugh is emeritus professor of agricultural Economics at Kansas State University.



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