This is a story of congressional incompetence.
Back in 2008, when Congress passed the comprehensive authorizing legislation encompassing agriculture, rural development, nutrition, agricultural trade, conservation, farm subsidies, agricultural research and much more — known as the 2008 farm bill — they foolishly set it to expire on Sept. 30, 2012. Why they chose an election year defies understanding, given the difficulty of getting anything passed in the summer of an election year. But they did.
Guess whether Congress passed the farm bill by that deadline. No, of course not.
Ask, then, whether it mattered. Yes, of course It did, tremendously. Here’s why.
Farm bills provide authorization for programs to be funded. The authorization for some of the most effective programs addressing agriculture and rural communities expired with that farm bill in 2012. Even when Congress later extended the 2008 farm bill, that extension only applied to programs with at least $50 million in annual appropriations, or “baseline funding,” allowing them to stay funded during the extension period. Unfortunately, many successful but smaller programs hadn’t reached the $50 million mark and were left stranded. Programs that helped beginning farmers get started, for example. Programs supporting farmers’ markets and other direct marketing strategies so important for many farms’ survival. Programs helping farmers add value to their goods and increase their profits from enterprises like making pasta from wheat, cheese from milk, or cider from apples. Programs that provided technical assistance to underserved farmers, supported organic farming research, and many others.
Unfortunately for beginning farmers and others needing help that these stranded programs could have offered, Congress let the programs languish for more than a year. Yes, those programs simply didn’t get funded. For those who depended on them, it was like a partial government shut-down for over a year!
When Congress finally passed a farm bill in late January, 2014, do you think they learned their lesson and made it expire in a non-election year? Of course not.
Thus, once again, Congress set itself up for risking the well-being of farms across the nation at a time when many farmers are in great economic distress. There were danger signs earlier this year, when the House passed its version of the 2018 Farm Bill on an entirely partisan basis, shutting out Democrats entirely and just barely passing their bill. The House bill was extreme in many ways – creating onerous restrictions on food stamps recipients, cutting out entire conservation programs, and opening the federal coffers for subsidy payments to farmers, stripping out meaningful caps on such payments. The far more bipartisan Senate bill wasn’t perfect, but it was far more balanced on all issues.
So do you think Congress behaved responsibly and negotiated the differences between their two versions in time to get a farm bill passed by the Sept. 30 deadline this year? Of course not. Not this Congress — one of the most cynical and least responsible congresses I can imagine. No, once again Congress defaulted on passing the farm bill, and once again, it results in nearly 40 important programs being left without an authorization, which means without funding.
Ask farmers who counted on starting new businesses this year or young farmers wanting to start up farms if Congress cares about them. If they’ve been watching this debacle, they’ll know to answer: “Of course not.”
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.
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