Last year, the Senate and House Agriculture Committees approved farm bills saving $23 billion and $35 billion, respectively, to help Uncle Sam balance his books and to provide some certainty to America’s farmers and ranchers and rural America. Unfortunately, this commonsense, bipartisan effort died with the 112th Congress.
Now, instead of asking the two Committees to report farm bill legislation that achieves a targeted amount of savings plus sensible reform, at least one Senate plan to turn off budget sequestration threatens to circumvent the Committees and eliminate nearly any semblance of a farm safety net in the current farm bill.
Out of roughly $3.8 trillion in annual government spending, the plan could identify only $55 billion in cuts over 10 years and all $55 billion would come at the expense of our national defense and America’s farmers and ranchers. This approach would barely move the needle in reaching the goal of $4 trillion in savings set by the Simpson-Bowles Commission, although it nearly triples the cuts to agriculture recommended by that commission. Nor is it even a comprehensive substitute for the roughly $1.2 trillion in cuts scheduled over the next 10 years under sequestration, delaying across the board cuts only until January of next year.
The plan is also unbalanced and unfair. It does not simply single out the farm bill as one of only two places in the entire federal budget that can be cut, but it actually goes astep further to single out one section of the farm bill for elimination. Under the plan, 100 percent of the cuts would come at the expense of policies comprising just 6 percent of farm bill funding.
Specifically, the plan would terminate the direct payment. But that is not the main problem. Last year's farm bills would have done the same. The problem is how.
By eliminating fully one-half of the funding available to write a new farm safety net in a five-year farm bill, the plan makes the development and successful passage of that farm bill a bigger challenge. First, there would not be adequate resources to provide a meaningful safety net for farmers. Second, an impetus behind passage of a farm bill has been to achieve the savings and reforms the bill can offer.
What's more, if direct payments are terminated as provided under this plan, every farmer in the country will be left with no effective policy should the farm economy collapse.
Critics of the farm bill are naturally elated. Seventeen years ago, the direct payment was first introduced as a pro-trade, pro-budget, pro-planting flexibility reform, and it was. But since the direct payment's inception, the “reformers” have used it as a cudgel to hit farmers over the head with. Well, call it a cudgel or a Trojan Horse, but opponents view the new policy plane agriculture would be on under this plan as an opportunity to undercut and imperil crop insurance.
If Washington cares one iota about farmers and ranchers and rural America it will not let this happen.
Instead, lawmakers should instruct the House and Senate Agriculture Committees to move bipartisan farm bill legislation forward that achieves a fair and equitable amount of savings to help turn off sequestration and to assist in reaching the deficit reduction goals set forth by Simpson-Bowles. Under that scenario, the direct payment would still be repealed. Billions of dollars would still be saved and reforms would be implemented.
One of those reforms should be a new safety net in the farm bill that does not attempt to duplicate crop insurance but does that which crop insurance was never designed to do: be there for farmers when prices collapse over multiple years due to forces beyond their control, such as foreign subsidies and tariffs that are at record highs and climbing while U.S. support for farmers is at a record low. The success of a safety net is not measured by how much it spends but whether it is there when farmers really need it. Farmers might then walk the halls of Congress pointing to an effective farm bill that provides a strong safety net that quite possibly wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime. It’s doable. Moreover, based on last year's bills, the Agriculture Committees felt other areas under their jurisdiction could contribute to deficit reduction and benefit from reforms.
These days the debate over farm policy has become incredibly one-sided. Major newspapers uncritically pick up and print every claim against it but rarely if ever present the other side. For their part, full time critics have demonstrated that they will say and do pretty much anything to tear down a policy that they viscerally dislike. Both are free to ignore facts in front of their noses and pretend that farmers and ranchers don’t face unique weather and market volatility. They can lecture farmers in my part of the country facing a third consecutive year of drought and crop prices that have fluctuated from over $2 a pound to under 50 cents a pound within the same timeframe as to why they feel the farmer in the Paul Harvey Ram truck ad doesn’t exist anymore.
But lawmakers don’t have that luxury. Washington cannot ignore the fact that farmers would go uninsured without federal crop insurance and that our trading partners do an awful lot to manipulate the world market that affects what an American farmer gets paid. It cannot be ignored that farm policy has been under budget for over a decade now and has already been singled out several times for cuts. Nor can agriculture's contributions to the economy and balance of trade, to say nothing of its societal importance, be overlooked.
The bottom line is, this country’s farmers and ranchers need a farm bill. At long last, Washington should get it done. Passing a farm bill will not be easy. It has never been. But, the Senate’s sequestration plan will make the row even harder to hoe. That plan should be rejected. There is a smarter way to go.
For agriculture’s part, farmers and ranchers can help by unifying on substance and strategy. Ongoing divisions will work against agriculture not only on this farm bill but may well have repercussions on other policies important to crop and livestock producers down the road.
About the Author: Larry Combest represented West Texas in the House of Representatives for 18 years where he served as Chairman of the Intelligence and Agriculture Committees.
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