Editorial: Blizzard a Bleak Reminder

10/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Dennis Larison Editor

The photos from South Dakota are horrific. Dead cows lie stacked along stream banks where they tried to take shelter from an early storm.

Hitting just days after the USDA closed its doors to all nonessential operations, the loss of cattle numbering in the tens of thousands serves as a stern reminder of just how much farmers rely on government assistance when beset by fickle weather, one of their most formidable foes.

One can only hope that a gridlocked Congress takes note as its members finally get to work trying to hammer out differences between House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill.

According to The Associated Press, the five-year, roughly $500 billion Farm Bill has been languishing for two years while Congress has been mired in debates over spending.

The Senate passed its current version of the Farm Bill in June, and the House later passed two bills that will be combined in the negotiations.

The main sticking point appears to be the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. The Senate bill would cut $400 million a year from food stamps, while the House bill would cut $4 billion.

Among the House members named last Saturday to the joint committee that will try to iron out the differences in the two bills was Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., who will represent the House leadership, a move some viewers interpret as a signal that House Republicans will insist on the larger cuts to food stamps in their version of the bill.

The tenfold disparity in food-stamp funding mirrors the overall deadlock between Democrats and Republicans that led to a government shutdown and the prospect of a default on the nation’s debt.

Nor is the food-stamp issue the only difference that will have to be resolved.

FarmPolicy.com reported Monday that Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member on the House Ag Committee, told the Red River Farm Network radio program that the House leadership has packed the committee with appointees opposed to the dairy-policy portion of both House and Senate bills.

There are also differences between House and Senate bills on what direction to take to replace direct-subsidy payments in the new Farm Bill.

These are not good omens for prospects that the joint committee will be able to reach a reasonable compromise over the differences in the two versions of the Farm Bill.

But then again, this is politics, where surprise breakthroughs are part of the game.

Perhaps, with growing public disgust over the impasse in Congress, resolving the long-delayed Farm Bill might offer a first step toward a new rapprochement between the two political parties, especially if Congress agrees to delay final decisions on the impasse until next year.

Some observers have been saying it could take until January, when Depression-era laws on agricultural support are due to kick in, before we’ll have a new Farm Bill.

But given Congress’ willingness to ignore other, more ominous deadlines, it’s much too early to be making any plans for a January celebration.

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