Food Security

Why Congress Can’t Pass a Farm Bill

September 21, 2012  • Dan Glickman

USDA Corn Drought PhotoThe failure of Congress to pass a new Farm Bill is another example of the institutional and structural dysfunction currently affecting the Congress. The legislation has passed the full Senate many weeks ago, and also passed the full House Agriculture Committee. Both approvals were overwhelmingly bipartisan. Historically, the Farm Bill has enjoyed the bipartisan support of Congress, largely because of the coalition developed over the years between urban and rural interests, and because the legislation addressed both farm and agricultural policy, as well as federal nutrition policy. But for a variety of reasons, the House Republican Leadership had not scheduled the legislation for consideration before members have left Washington for campaign season. As such, this is the first Farm Bill in modern history which has expired for any length of time without passage, or an extension of current programs.

Failure to act on the Farm Bill in the regular order will put tens of thousands of farmers in some degree of financial jeopardy, because farm lenders often base their lending decisions on federal farm policy, and in this case they will be less likely to make affirmative lending decisions to farmers not knowing what the farm and crop insurance programs will look like. And many of the key provisions automatically expire on Sept. 30, 2012, which creates enormous uncertainty for farm, conservation, nutrition, rural development and trade programs of the Department of Agriculture. Unless Congress acts soon, either in the lame duck Congress after the election, or else through the passage of an extension of current programs in the near future, especially since the drought has caused so much hardship throughout farm country, all chaos will break out in farm country, and some of the federal nutrition programs for the poor as well as important federal conservation programs could be interrupted causing great personal hardship.

Millions of people rely on these programs. That is why it is hard for me to imagine, given the political risks of all of this, particularly to House Republicans, that there won’t be at a minimum a stop gap or short term solution demanded by members before the end of this year, assuming Congress has to start over in 2013. And of course it is still possible that the wrath of the voters is so great that Congress actually deals with this Bill in a lame duck session.

Why did all this happen? Why did the decades of Congress providing leadership in passing bipartisan farm legislation hit such a glitch this year? Part of the reason is the impact of the federal deficit; farm and nutrition legislation is expensive, and many members of Congress did not want to be recorded voting on the Bill while the federal debt and upcoming fiscal “cliff” was not also resolved. In addition, many House Tea Party Members were unwilling to vote for any Farm Bill, in part because of the cost of the farm programs themselves, and in part because of the growing cost of the SNAP (Food Stamp) program which now exceeds the cost of farm programs. Some conservative House members strongly feel that Food Stamps and Farm Programs should be separated into two distinct pieces of legislation, as many of them have opposed the SNAP program altogether (while often supporting the farm commodity provisions). Some more progressive members would not support any Farm Bill that contained major cuts in federal nutrition benefits.

Whatever the cause, the failure to act on this legislation is another symbol of the inability of the Congress to pass major legislation, and the inability of the House Republican leadership to move the process forward. The irony is that the Chairman and Ranking Members of both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees (Senators Stabenow and Roberts, and Congressman Peterson and Lucas) worked very hard to produce a bipartisan consensus in their respective Committees, and in the case of the Senators, on the Senate floor. It used to be that the Farm Bill was considered uniquely bipartisan and different from most other legislation; that it could pass when nothing else could. No longer it seems is this true.