USDA farm bill rules and regs -- legislating from the executive bench
In teaching policy, I tell my class that the passage of a piece of legislation is only one step in the process. Once Congress has passed a piece of legislation, the appropriate government agency must take the legislative language and turn it into concrete regulations. Occasionally the proponents of a legislative action argue that the regulations do not reflect the original intent.
In most years, when I explain this process, it takes the form of a theoretical discussion. This year I have a number of real life examples.
Unlike many farm bills which eventually receive support from both the Congress and the administration, the 2008 farm bill was enacted over the veto of the President. In that situation it is not surprising to see an ongoing struggle between the administration and the advocates of various programs in the farm bill, especially when it comes to the writing of the implementing regulations.
At the moment we have three examples of this: the ACRE program, the 10 acre rule, and COOL. In each case the advocates argue that the administration is ignoring the intent of Congress in their rule making. Let us look at these one at a time.
The ACRE (Average Crop Revenue) program is a revenue protection program that farmers can opt into in exchange for giving up a percentage of their direct payments and the support levels provided by the Counter-Cyclical Payment program. Once a farmer signs up for ACRE they must stay into the program until the end of the current farm program.
The issue with ACRE is which crop years are to be used for computing the two-year average crop prices that are part of the ACRE payment formula. The administration would like to use the 2006 and 2007 crop years while farmers and Sen. Harkin insist that the intention of the legislation was to use the latest two years -- for the 2009 crop year (the first year farmers can sign up for the program) that would be 2007 and 2008. The administration wants the earlier years because the payments are lower while farmers want 2007 and 2008 because the average crop revenue is higher in those years.
The 10-acre rule concerns a provision in the 2008 farm bill that disallows farm program payments for units of less than 10 acres. The administration sees this as a cost savings measure. Many of the farmers involved have several farming units that are less than ten acres. To participate in the program, farmers want to combine separate acreages of less than 10 acres into one "farm." The ability for a farmer to aggregate such acreages for the purpose of the program was specifically mentioned as allowable in written comments that attended the legislation. The administration ruled that the budget was set assuming that consolidation would not be allowed and they do not want to allow farmers to consolidate their acreage in order to stay in the farm program.
The COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) has been simmering since it was included in the 2002 farm bill. The administration was forced to implement it for some products, but did not implement it for beef, pork, and lamb along with a number of other agricultural products. The proponents of COOL want consumers to be able to identify where their food products come from because they believe that consumers have a preference for U.S. production. For meat, a product labeled "Product of the United States" must be born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. It cannot be backgrounded in Mexico or born in Canada and receive the "Product of the United States" label.