The Farm Bill: Grand Central for special interest groups

Not every lobbying organization in Washington has a dog in the hunt in drafting a renewal of the Farm Bill — but hundreds of them do.

The clash of special interests over the bill’s specifics makes achieving agreement highly difficult.

That achievement appeared on track to success as of early this week, a tribute to the perseverance of Senate ag committee chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House ag committee chair Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla.

Midwestern lawmakers sought to protect corn and soybean farmers’ incomes. Southerners wanted the same for sugar, cotton and rice. Westerners represented the interests of cattle ranchers. Urban lawmakers’ chief concern was the SNAP program (food stamps).

There were battles over the dairy program, ethanol, crop insurance, conservation, disaster relief, country-of-origin labeling, rural development, payment limitations, eligibility for farm payments, even catfish-rearing inspections, and many other items as well.

It’s no wonder that farm bills are created in units of five years or more: the struggle to achieve compromise among so many interests is exhausting, especially in today’s climate of hyperpartisanship and ideological extremes.

The agreement reached by the House-Senate farm bill conference committee on Monday calls for spending $500 billion over the next five years. That’s a lot of money, but it actually represents an estimated savings of about $24 billion over the next decade, $8 billion from SNAP’s food stamps and $16 billion from ag spending.

The SNAP cuts are galling to urban Democrats and others. The cuts reportedly will reduce food aid to some 800,000 Americans by about $90 a month, and that’s on top of the $11-a-month reduction that occurred this past November.

Some opponents of those cuts vowed to vote against the bill. At the other end of the spectrum, some conservatives also said they would vote no because the SNAP cuts were not great enough for them.

The bill proposed an end to direct farm payments, which for 18 years have gone to farmers whether they actually grew crops or not. That change will save an estimated $40 billion over 10 years.

There are also requirements to require certain conservation practices in order to qualify for government ag aid, and crop insurance programs are beefed up and made more generous as a way to replace the lost direct payments.

Tweets in response to news stories about the agreement flooded the web immediately, and they range across the entire political spectrum.

Liberals are outraged at the food stamp cuts at a time when subsidies to oil interests, huge defense production “boondoggles,” and tax breaks for hedge fund managers continue unabated.

Conservatives rail against allowing food stamps to be spent on pop and other unhealthy items, no requirement for those recipients to seek jobs or be tested for drugs, and failure to create sharper cuts to the federal deficit.

As of this writing, the bill appears headed for approval in Congress and the president’s signature. If approval fails to materialize this week, tweaks will be made to round up the required number of votes.

But the clock continues to tick on issues not solved by a farm bill:
• American sugar producers are significantly protected in order to keep domestic sugar prices well above the world price. How can that be justified?
• It’s much cheaper to produce ethanol from Caribbean and South American sugar cane than from United States corn. If ethanol is desirable because it reduces imported oil, why doesn’t it make sense in economic terms to permit importation of  Latin American ethanol?
• How long will the federal government allow pollution of the nation’s waterways from non-point sources such as farm fields before quantifiable targets for pollution reduction are enacted?
• Why shouldn’t there be a “hard” income limit, as Iowa’s Sen. Grassley proposed, of $250,000 for farms that receive government benefits? And likewise, what’s wrong with Grassley’s “hard” requirement that beneficiaries under the farm bill be actually involved in farm production or management?

These are issues that farm interests are reluctant to discuss.

But as the farm population, and Midwestern clout in general, continue to shrink, pressures on those issues will grow.

Simple resistance will eventually fail; ag interests need to think how to respond in a positive way to protect their future.

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