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The incredible shrinking farm bill

DANIEL LOOKER 01/30/2012 @ 3:15pm Business Editor

The script says in 2012, a presidential election year, a dysfunctional Congress is supposed to write a five-year farm bill in a struggling economy with less money.

We saw a preview last fall, when a hurried-up version of a bill was drafted by the stars of this story, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Ok), minority leaders, and a slaving staff who might have wished they were a cast of thousands.

The goal was a farm bill with $23 billion in deficit reduction (over 10 years) for a Super Committee charged with finding more than $1 trillion in savings. The Super Committee failed.

Now the ag committees are starting a more normal process of hearings and bill drafting.

Some veteran farm group lobbyists think they'll be lucky if all that Congress shaves from the farm bill is $23 billion.

“Certainly we're not going to balance the federal deficit by cutting USDA, but production agriculture is less than 1% of the population. We're going to have to make a compelling case to have any support,” says Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association in Washington, D.C.

“The thing we have to come back to that we can't ignore anymore: For every dollar the federal government spends, they have to borrow 42¢,” he says.

The new members of the House of Representatives are focused on cutting the deficit. And their goal is much bigger than the $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts that still start in 2013 as a result of the Super Committee's failure to identify other ways to save money. (Those cuts will be compressed into nine years.)

“I have talked to some of the Tea Party folks. They see no reason for the federal government to have any role in agriculture whatsoever,” Doggett says.

Doggett and others who lobby for farm groups expect the ag committees to try to start with cuts of $23 billion. But many expect a fight on the floor of the House of Representatives, where even bigger cuts could be introduced as amendments. The details of commodity programs worked out last fall, and never publicly released, are likely to change again. And the normally bipartisan approach to writing farm bills could collapse over the issue of funding for food stamps. Democrats in the Senate are pushing for only small food stamp cuts in a weak economy. Republicans in the House see the farm bill's largest program as wasteful and a source of money for ag-related spending.

Money woes

When the 2008 Farm Bill was passed, it was projected to cost about $58 billion each year, with the majority, $38 billion, going for nutrition programs. The Great Recession and jobless recovery have exploded nutrition costs. Food stamps alone, the biggest part of the nutrition title of the farm bill, are costing more than $80 billion in this fiscal year. Compare that to a recent Congressional Research Service estimate of annual farm bill costs for commodities at $6.5 billion and conservation at $4.5 billion. The Ag Committee's deficit-trimming proposal was $2.3 billion a year, and nutrition programs escaped with only $400 million a year in cuts, or $4 billion over 10 years. Projected 10-year spending on nutrition last fall was $704 billion.

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