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FARM AND FOOD FILE

New boss, same brawl

March 3, 2017
ALAN GUEBERT - columnist , Farm News

The Trump Administration's turtle-slow start with the Republican-led Congress bodes ill for what it and Republicans said would be a busy legislative year. Tax reform, replacing Obamacare, raising the debt ceiling, and a 2018 budget all await initial action.

The GOP chairmen of the House and Senate ag committees, however, aren't waiting on any White House signal to begin work. They have a farm bill to write and pass before the current law expires in 2018.

In fact, the House committee kicked off its farm bill work with testimony on the stumbling ag economy Feb. 15 in Washington, D.C. The Senate committee began Feb. 23 with a hearing in the backyard of Chairman Pat Roberts, of Manhattan, Kansas

Their quick 2017 start, however, does not mean a quick 2018 ending. For proof, recall the tortured path traveled by the 2014 farm bill, as Sara Wyant suggested to readers in a lengthy Feb. 10 posting at Agri-Pulse.com. In fact, it was to be the 2012 farm bill, not 2014, and House hearings for it began on April 10, 2010.

On Feb. 7, 2014, when the bill was signed into law, no one celebrated because the brutal, four-year slugfest that delivered it had fractured decades-old political coalitions that had worked together to balance American farm and food interests that protected both farmers and the poor.

The biggest hold-up was Tea Party budget hawks whose focus was cost, not policy. Their refusal to support any farm bill that didn't slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the former food stamp program, stalled the farm bill at almost every turn.

Their fiery demands were fueled even more by the ground-shifting, 2010 mid-term election. Caught in the quicksand was Blanche Lincoln, the first woman and first Arkansan ever to chair the Senate ag committee.

She was clobbered in her 2010 reelection bid just five months after farm bill hearings began that year.

House ag chairman Collin Peterson fared better. He was reelected in 2010, but he lost the committee's gavel to Oklahoma's Frank Lucas when Republicans overwhelmed Democrats to easily retake the House.

This farm bill fight could be even longer, harder, and costlier. For example, in 2013, the year today's governing bill took its final shape, U.S. net farm income hit an all-time record, $123.7 billion. Two weeks ago, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasted 2017 net farm income at half that, or $62.3 billion.

Will yesterday's farm policy - essentially government-subsidized revenue insurance that has no ability whatsoever to lift revenue - work for today's falling commodity markets, falling land prices, and falling farm income?

Not a chance, says Daryll Ray and Harwood Schaffer in their latest Policy Pennings column from the University of Tennessee. That farm bill's "programs simply backfill low prices with inadequate payments and do nothing to reduce the modest amount of surplus production that is the cause of the low prices."

In short, a new farm bill that simply updates the insurance-centric 2014 law will doom U.S. farmers and ranchers to more years of financial calamity.

Farm lenders, ag suppliers, and budget hawks, you listening? Denying today's farm and ranch reality ensures farm policy failure and, right behind it, farm and ranch failure.

Even if ag and congressional leaders address this evident need, it is not at all evident that the Trump White House will support any farm bill let alone much needed changes in the 2014 law. Early indications aren't hopeful.

Top Trump aide Stephen Miller (who co-authored the President's grim inaugural address) helped sink recent immigration reform, a farm and ranch priority, while on the staff of then-Senator, now Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican.

Also, Paul Winfree, a former Heritage Foundation economist, now serves as Trump's director of budget policy. It's a lofty perch from which to advocate a long-sought Heritage Foundation goal: deep cuts in SNAP spending.

If he succeeds, the weakened farm-urban coalition that carried previous farm bill over the finish line may be gone for good.

In the meantime, the 2018 farm bill has left the barn. Where it goes from here is impossible to guess.

The Farm and Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Past columns, events and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.

 
 

 

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