• Success, of a sort
    February 01,2014
     

    The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee said the compromise farm bill passed by the House on Wednesday was a “miracle.”

    It needn’t have been a miracle. Ordinarily, passage of the farm bill is part of the routine business carried out by Congress every five years. But this time the farm bill has been caught in the vortex of partisan gamesmanship, held up for nearly two years by differences over food stamps, dairy policy and other issues.

    Vermont farmers saw a victory of sorts in the compromise that finally emerged from the House this week. They didn’t get everything they wanted, but the bill contains a dairy program with insurance to protect farmers from swings in feed prices and a program for government purchase of surplus milk products in the event of falling prices. These are the usual sorts of protections that dairy farmers have relied on for years.

    The House could not bring itself to support a program promoted by Vermont farmers to help stabilize the supply of milk, and thus the price that farmers receive. Dairy farmers have for years been pushing for a supply-management mechanism that would use a pricing penalty as a disincentive for farmers who produce excessive milk at a time of oversupply. Dairy processors, backed by House Speaker John Boehner, have opposed supply management as interference in the free market. The interference comes by preventing processors from exploiting low prices, to the detriment of farmers.

    One of the divisive issues holding up passage of the farm bill has been food stamps (known in Vermont as 3Squares and relying on a kind of debit card instead of stamps). Republicans in the House proposed massive cuts in the food stamp program, even in the face of the growing need caused by recession and prolonged unemployment. Democrats would have no part of those cuts, and the compromise bill represents a Democratic victory on the issue. The Republicans had proposed $40 billion in cuts over five years. The compromise bill called for $8 billion in cuts, which is still too much for some Democratic senators.

    Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democrat from New York, said, “This bill will result in less food on the table for children, seniors and veterans who deserve better from this Congress while corporations continue to receive guaranteed federal handouts. I cannot vote for it on the Senate floor.”

    The Senate has already approved two previous versions of the bill so passage by the Senate is likely. The bill that finally emerges will be both a cornucopia of benefits and a study in hypocrisy. Conservative members who routinely complain about the deficit will not be averse to supporting big subsidies for growers of commodities such as corn, soybeans, rice and cotton. The hypocrisy is magnified when they also vote to slash food stamps.

    Supporters of the farm bill believe that the subsidy program has been improved because the bill ends the so-called direct payment program, which was a source of cash for growers of commodities. Instead subsidies will shift to the insurance program. Farmers will have to demonstrate an actual loss before availing themselves of federal assistance. One victory for Vermont farmers came with the provision that rates for insurance will be lower for small farms than for large ones.

    It is hard to enact meaningful reforms of the farm bill because the nation’s agriculture sector contains so many interlocking interests. Defenders of dairy farmers are inclined to support cotton subsidies in order to win support from cotton state members for the dairy program. Vermont’s three-man congressional delegation, stout defenders of Vermont’s dairy farmers, is not above the kind of log rolling that produces costly spending for farm programs. Curbing farm spending is also hard because agriculture is spread throughout the states. Even urban states like New York and California have major farm interests.

    Success for farm legislation, therefore, is a relatively low bar to clear. Just passing a bill this year amounts to what we have learned to call success.

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