Higher Farm Bill Hurdles

3/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Dennis Larison Editor

Now that the dreaded sequestration has kicked in, the U.S. House and Senate Agriculture Committees have their work cut out for them in trying to pass a new Farm Bill before the current extension expires in September.

Although it’s too early to predict how many of the provisions of last year’s Farm Bill proposals will be retained, there are signs that new difficulties lie ahead.

Congress will likely be looking at every corner of government spending for programs to cut to reduce the deficit, and farm subsidies are often mentioned on Capitol Hill as offering fruitful possibilities for reducing expenditures.

Indeed, in a failed attempt last month to head off the across-the-board cuts of sequestration, Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., supported a proposal to eliminate direct farm payments for a 10-year savings of $27.5 billion.

Direct payments were already on the chopping block in last year’s Farm Bill proposals, but some of that money would have been redirected to crop insurance programs instead of being entirely sacrificed to the federal deficit.

Whether such a shift in support in the new bills will be possible would appear to be in doubt, especially in light of new estimates last week from the Congressional Budget Office on how much last year’s proposals would have saved.

One of the selling points of last year’s Farm Bill was those savings, estimated at the time to be $23 billion over 10 years for the version that passed the full Senate and $35.1 billion for the one approved by the House committee but never taken up by the full House.

In the revised estimates, the budget office pegs those projected savings at only $13.1 billion for the Senate bill and $26.6 billion for the House version.

According to news reports, the budget office said it had underestimated spending from new disaster programs for crops and milk, and miscalculated the cost of the food stamp program, which constitutes the lion’s share of the Farm Bill.

It appears likely those new estimates will put considerable pressure on members of both ag committees to find additional programs to cut so they can at least match the selling point of the previous savings estimates.

There are also other indications that the Farm Bill will be an even harder sell this time around.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, told The New York Times that “taxpayers dodged a bullet last year when Congress wisely rejected cramming a trillion-dollar Farm Bill onto the fiscal cliff package.”

Likewise, in an editorial last month deriding the Super Bowl ad titled “And God Made a Farmer,” The Washington Post scoffed at the notion of farming as a hardscrabble enterprise needing government support, pointing to record farm income, agricultural exports and land values.

The Post’s conclusion?

“Perhaps God made the farmer, as Paul Harvey says. But does the federal taxpayer have to make him rich?”

Despite the recent struggles of drought-stricken beef ranchers and margin-challenged dairy farmers, there are certain to be many lawmakers outside the agriculture committees who share that attitude.

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