The House of Representatives departed Washington, D.C. last week, leaving a pile of unfinished business including the farm bill that expires Sept. 30 stacked up on the to-do list.
With members heading for the campaign trail, efforts stalled out to call a vote on a new farm bill, or extend the current bill. Without an extension passed by the House and Senate, U.S. farm policy reverts, at least in theory, to permanent legislation passed in the 1930s and 40s.
This leads us to a couple of observations.
Its fairly rare that multiyear farm bills are passed on time. The final 2002 bill was passed more than eight months after the previous legislation had expired. The current farm bill became law eight months after the 2002 bill expired.
Lawmakers usually just pass extensions as they wrangle over contentious issues. If they dont, farm policy reverts to programs provided in permanent farm legislation passed in 1939 and 1949.
Its a ridiculous proposition. Since it can easily be forestalled by extending current programs, the threat of policy reverting to such antiquated legislation doesnt provide a serious deterrent to inaction or political logjams.
At the same time, Washington being, well, Washington, you cant rule out entirely the possibility that even an extension of current policy would be so contentious that the current bill would expire and the old program mandates would again be in force. Forgetting for a moment that USDA has no practical way to implement these decades-old policies, the provisions of the permanent legislation do not apply to modern agricultural production and marketing.
While acts of Congress dont always make sense to us, we really dont understand why it would choose chaos as a default position.
There has been some wrangling over the particulars of how to replace the commodity subsidy programs with a risk-management system, and issues regarding dairy policy. The real roadblock is a fight over how much should be spent on USDA nutrition programs.
Seventy-four percent of USDAs current budget of $145 billion goes to school lunches, supplemental nutrition assistance (food stamps) and WIC. House Republicans want to tighten eligibility requirements for food assistance and reduce costs to a greater degree than House Democrats, and greater still than provided by the bill passed by the Senate.
It seems to us that having a Department of Agriculture and a farm bill devoted to agricultural production and marketing, and a separate Welfare Department and a welfare bill devoted to the same makes a lot more sense.
Congress owes it to farmers and ranchers to lay down its plan in a timely manner. They and their lenders need to know the rules before making plans and lending money for next years crop.
The most vexing thing about Congresss failure to pass a farm bill or to reduce the deficit, fix Social Security, reform the tax code, or do anything else of import is that working Americans pay the consequences.