Listening to five minutes worth of federal chatter is like buying five dollars worth of gas. You don’t get much for your money. No big bang for the buck. This year’s never ending version of a do-nothing Congress seems hell-bent on sitting this one out. Do nothing until the election is over and then finger-to-the-wind to test which way it blows is the current order of the day in Washington.
So that farm bill is sitting out there in the endless void defined by the Beltway, waiting for something to happen. Actually there are two versions, one written by those damn liberals in the Senate and another by those damn conservatives in the House. If you’ve been living in America and paying attention to all the papers, you understand that those two groups share the respect shown by the Yankees to the Red Sox. They get along with all the politeness shown to Redskins fans by Cowboys fans. You can feel the same warmth that flows around a Michigan vs. Ohio State late November bar room brawl in the big house in Ann Arbor.
Of course we know that the farm bill isn’t really a just a farm bill. It goes well beyond agricultural America in its scope and the biggest part of it goes to programs like SNAP. It is a financial bonanza. With the exception of things like defense and health, it’s one of the largest piggy banks doled out by our friends in government, so you know almost every conceivable lobby is hustling 24/7.
So let’s spend a few minutes listening to what some of the key players are saying.
Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said this on Monday: “There is nothing more important to rural America and nothing more important to producers, farmers and ranchers in this country than action on this bill. There’s no greater need for this help and assistance than now, and there’s no excuse or reason why the House of Representatives cannot take this matter up.’’
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) in a letter cosigned by 78 other lawmakers: “Congress has an obligation to move swiftly to reauthorize the programs that feed American families. In the midst of a severe drought and with expiration dates on a number of farm-related programs barreling toward us, inaction carries potentially devastating consequences for many farmers, producers and American families. The 2012 Farm Bill isn’t perfect yet, but let’s debate it before the August recess and get a good bill to the President as quickly as possible.”
Advising another, slower direction in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) signed by conservative lobbying groups American Commitment, Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Cost of Government Center, the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, FreedomWorks, Heritage Action for America, the National Taxpayers Union, R Street, Taxpayers for Common Sense and Taxpayers Protection Alliance: “We write urging you to resist special interest calls to use the current drought to lock taxpayers into a trillion dollars worth of bad agriculture policy. As you accurately noted recently, passing a new Farm Bill filled with special interest entitlements is not needed to address the drought facing many of our nation’s farmers."
“Even with the drought, America’s agricultural economy remains strong. This strength and the glaring weakness of the federal budget — $15 trillion in debt and trillion dollar deficits for the next decade — make it even more essential that Washington’s role in agricultural policy be reduced. Now is the time to roll back wasteful and market distorting taxpayer subsidies. FARRM does the exact opposite.”
Tom Schatz, President, Citizens against Government Waste (CAGW), naming House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) the July 2012 ‘Porkers of the Month’ for sponsoring the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act (FARRM): "Recent arguments urging the farm bill's immediate passage due to droughts across the country should be ignored. Taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance prevents those farmers who have enrolled from losing more than 15 percent of their expected revenue, and a raft of private options, such as hedging, forwarding, and diversification, remain available. Further, the farm bill covers much more than farm supports, as evidenced by the fact that 79 percent of farm bill expenditures go to food stamps. Passing a bad farm bill will not end the drought, but will do a great deal of damage to future food and farm policy."
Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-IL) defended the FARRM with this statement: "The SNAP program is vital, and it's important to me that those who are most in need continue to receive help. I'm grateful that Chairman Lucas and Ranking Member Peterson adopted ideas supported by both Democrats and Republicans to ensure that this farm bill closes loopholes and eliminates waste, fraud, and abuse in SNAP law, such as preventing lottery winners from receiving benefits, while continuing to provide assistance to those that need it. With 8.2% unemployment, the more people we can put back to work, the fewer people on programs like SNAP. From day one, I have been focused on relentlessly advocating for polices that help put Americans back to work with good paying jobs.
"With the Ag Committee having passed this bill, it should be brought to the floor to ensure that farmers and producers have the certainty of a five-year farm bill and needy families have the certainty of continued assistance."
About the pieces and parts of the bill
Dairy: A hopeful Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Bill Bruins - "With the farm bill one step closer to reality, we could not be more pleased that it includes the most significant reform to dairy policy in generations … With the Dairy Security Act still intact within the farm bill, we are very encouraged to finally have consensus on dairy policy reform."
Dairy: National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, sounding like he was speaking against free market initiatives - "… although NFU is skeptical of the untested dairy insurance program included in the Act, one thing that would certainly make the program wholly ineffective is allowing dairies to increase production unchecked. Eliminating the supply management provision would be disastrous and would lead to a repeat of the low prices the industry has seen in recent years."
The Chicken & Egg Question: HSUS top dog, Wayne Pacelle, responding to Rep. Steve King’s (R-IA) failed midnight attempt to stop California’s egg reg and foie gras ban by inserting some interesting wording into the bill - “It’s hard to overstate how sweeping and far-reaching the King amendment is. I think lawmakers on the committee had no benefit of preparation for the surprise offering.”
Pork: Dave Warner of The National Pork Producers Council, scoffing at an egg amendment that gives chickens more ‘wing room’ and its potential impact on pigs - "So our animals can't turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets. I don't know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.... The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that's at an all-time high."
Corn: U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) talking about that state’s hog and turkey farms - "If those corn prices go sky high, their feed goes sky high. Not only that, their animals are in trouble because of the heat. So, there's actually something in there that continues the program that actually went away this year that's very important."
"(To stall) I think it's a big mistake for them (House Republicans) from a policy standpoint for the future of this country. Ag is our biggest export. We do not want to just pull the rug out from under rural America.
Soybeans: American Soybean Association President Steve Wellman - “As conditions deteriorate throughout much of rural America and the outlook for farmers becomes bleaker and bleaker, we are reminded that farming is subject to so many elements and risks outside of the farmer’s control. This further emphasizes the need for programs to help farmers manage risks in order to stay viable and plant next year.”
“Just as when homeowners insurance replaces valuables following a flood or a fire, crop insurance only covers farmers in the event of a significant loss. These policies often have deductibles or loss levels at 25 percent or more. They aren’t there to turn a profit; they exist to help farmers survive and keep farming.”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.