By John Campbell
You can hear the drumrolls already. Aggies in Washington DC are starting to gear up for another Farm Bill parade. They used to be every 4 years but now it is every 5 – or so– because even with plenty of advance notice Congress has not always been able to get them done on time – just too much disagreement they say.
Maybe it is time to ask the question: why do we subject ourselves to this? There is no other entitlement program that expires itself like the farm and the food programs that go with it. And there is no practical reason why this one or any of the past ones had to expire – Congress could simply extend the one we have indefinitely and not put farmers or food program recipients through the drama. Leaving farmers in the lurch and uncertain about future programs is unnecessary. It took a year to explain the last farm bill changes to farmers.
The only technical reason Congress needs to do anything is because if they don’t the farm programs lapse to the 1933 “permanent law”. Food programs would continue through the annual appropriations process even without extension or reauthorization of the Farm Bill. In the last go round Secretary Vilsack and others made it seem like the world would stop spinning if a new farm bill was not served up. That is hardly the case.
Whatever you think of the current farm bill and the food programs – they are not fatally flawed. They could always be improved and they could always cost less – but we do not need 1500 page bills that rewrite everything to do this. Congress can fix anything they want any time they want. The same for how much we spend on these programs. Congress has a budget process – kind of. Entire farm bills have been duct taped to budget bills in the past.
Has the time come to break up the band? Why not just get rid of the ridiculously outdated 1933 “permanent law” and make the 2012 farm bill permanent law?
Farmers may be feeling politically empowered with a red state victory lap in the last election but they need to watch out for a false sense of security. There are bigger battles to fight than trying to lug a massive rewrite of programs that don’t need rewritten through the legislative wars. Each time you bring a farm bill to the floor of the House and Senate you set yourself up for multiple challenges on multiple fronts. Why take the risk? Who benefits?
Why not focus on issues that matter more like keeping a strong renewable fuels program going, or tax reform or environmental policy or immigration reform? Most important, why not use our limited political resources to keep the protectionist impulses of the new President at bay so that we can keep exporting our products?
During the 1996 Farm Bill consideration House Agricultural Committee Chairman Pat Roberts made a run at the idea of making that bill permanent law but there were no takers. 2018 might be the time to reconsider the idea.
About the Author: John Campbell is Managing Director at Ocean Park Advisors, former agribusiness executive and Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture.