The Next Farm Bill: How did we got from there to here, and where the heck are we going?

National politics appear to be pushing any action on a new farm bill into 2013.  This is not really that unexpected, as Congress has traditionally failed to enact farm legislation during an election year.

Given the political uncertainty in Washington, DC at the present time, it would be surprising to see any earth shattering legislation of any kind to pass this year … unless a lame duck Congress takes it upon itself to move ahead on few controversial issues.  The nation’s economy, massive unemployment, exploding debt and a continuing spiral towards another recession in 2013 are all placing a serious squeeze on meaningful farm legislation.

It may time for agriculture to reflect upon what brought us to this point in the farm bill debate.  First, consider the conflict between the food stamp provisions of the bill and those that address economic security for the nation’s agricultural sector.  These days the most oft asked question pertains to why these two conflicting issues are a part of the same legislation in the first place.

In years past, when agriculture had a more powerful hand in farm bill politics, there was still a need to draw a certain degree of support from urban legislators.  Tying agricultural policies with the food stamp program … a largely urban issue … made sense in those days because both rural and urban representatives had an interest in seeing a farm bill pass.  This increased the likelihood of both strong and bipartisan support for the bill.  However, politics has shifted the game as urban areas grow in representation and generations of Americans become further removed from their agricultural roots.

As urban representatives begin to flex their muscle in Congress, it would naturally follow that their interest in promoting economic security for farmers would wane.  However, that issue alone probably would not be, in itself, enough to derail farm bill legislation.  When, though, you throw in a mix of partisan politics, an unstable economy, a near crippling debt crisis, and rising unemployment … the political environment begins to shift considerably.

When the economy prospers and hums along, farm bill passage through Congress is more apt to be placed on the fast track to final passage. When the economy stutters, Congress moves more slowly, but passage of farm legislation is still reasonably anticipated.  When the economy stagnates, though, so does the farm bill.

One of the things that happens when the economy falters, is that the nation does not have sufficient income to support the expansion of government … unless the national debt is of no consideration.  So, under the current economic conditions there is now a finite amount of money available to fund the farm bill … and that finite amount is not sufficient to address all of the desires of the interested sides of the debate.

As there is a fixed amount of funds available to support a farm bill, the rural and urban legislators who once worked together to pass the legislation … are now at odds.  The conflict among the interests have reached a feverish pitch with each side pushing in an opposing direction … the results of which is that nothing is accomplished.

Unless there is some unforeseen circumstance, American agriculture should not expect any action on farm legislation until 2013 and, even then, only after the political dust has settled.  As the farm bill continues to be delayed, American agriculture can expect something else … fewer dollars to support an economic safety net for farm producers.  This all could change if the national economy becomes revved, but all signs point to a continued sluggish economy for some time to come.

It is more important than ever that agricultural interests come together to support a workable solution to the farm bill.  It cannot be swept under the rug that there exists a certain amount of conflict and animosity over the bill among different segments of American agriculture.  Conflict over the farm bill already exists in the halls of Congress, and that coupled with continued conflict among agricultural interests could spell disaster for workable legislation.  It could mean the difference between everyone getting something, or everyone getting nothing at all.  It is difficult to know exactly where the bus is going until we figure out who is driving the bus …

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