Dec 28, 2011

Farm Bill Rebooted

by Mary Fund

Now that the Congressional Super Committee failed to come up with a deficit reduction plan, it appears that Congress will revert to the more normal Farm Bill process of crafting a stand- alone bill in 2012, complete with hearings and debate. However, the proposed bill developed for the Super Committee by the four Agriculture Committee chairs will likely serve as the foundation for writing the new Farm Bill this year, starting in February.

Just days after the Super Committee failure to come up with an overall budget deficit agreement, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow spoke at the annual Farm Journal Forum in Washington, D.C. She indicated they would not be “starting from zero” but would use the work already done for the Super Committee as a launching point. She also expressed interest in getting a bill passed “as soon as possible.”

However, with the current Congress keep in mind that almost anything can happen, so options are being kept open as Congress grapples with larger spending, tax, and deficit measures.

A few policymakers have suggested starting over with a clean slate, largely due to the commodity section of the bill. There are also titles or programs that were not dealt with in any detail in the Super Committee version of the Farm Bill, such as the credit, rural development, and research titles.

Sequestration. The biggest fiscal reality in play now that the Super Committee did not act is the automatic cuts to government spending that will trigger in January 2013. Unless Congress takes some kind of action to untrigger the cuts, or finds some areas of agreement on big ticket budget items (like payroll tax cuts, the alternative minimum tax, Medicare payments to doctors, etc.), the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates cuts to Farm Bill programs of $15.6 billion. (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) are exempt from sequestration.)

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a difference between automatic cuts and a Congressional decision to cut is that under automatic cuts the biggest share of the $15.6 billion in reductions would come from crop and revenue insurance since it has the biggest budget. Under a regular farm bill scenario, crop insurance is less likely to be cut.

What Was Not in the Super Committee Farm Bill. Since the quickly crafted Super Committee proposal will likely be the foundation for the upcoming debate, it is worth noting what it failed to address.

The biggest failure was the lack of payment limitations in commodity payments. In fact, this version doubled the payment limit and left gaping loopholes still in place while cutting investments for rural development and job creation in rural areas.

Basically the proposal would have replaced direct payments (payments based on historical base acres and paid each year regardless of market price or farm income conditions) with a grab bag of commodity support options. But the proposal failed to address the need for payment limitations within this grab bag. It would have continued the biggest loophole that has been part of the commodity support system for two decades-- the loophole that allows people to dodge the “actively engaged in farming” requirement, which allows mega farms to receive multiples of the existing payment limit.

Also the proposed bill did not attach conservation compliance to crop insurance nor did it establish a nationwide sodbuster provision. Conservation compliance helps ensure that producers do not farm vulnerable highly erodible land and receive commodity crop payments for that land. Crop insurance has become the largest subsidy program in the Farm Bill, and as farm prices remain high, grasslands and sensitive areas are being brought into production without adequate conservation measures.

With help from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) See more at their website http://sustainable

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