It seems unlikely that the House of Representatives will pass a farm bill, and the House and Senate will subsequently reconcile their separate measures, by the time current legislation expires Sept. 30.
At this writing, efforts to call a vote in the House of Representatives on a new farm bill, or extend the current bill, have failed. If an extension isn't passed by the House and Senate, U.S. farm policy reverts, at least in theory, to permanent legislation passed in the '30s and '40s.
This leads us to a couple of observations.
It's 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 don't, farm policy reverts to programs provided in "permanent" farm legislation passed in 1939 and 1949.
It's a ridiculous proposition. Since it can easily be forestalled by extending current programs, the threat of policy reverting to such antiquated legislation doesn't provide a serious deterrent to inaction or political logjams.
At the same time, Washington being, well, Washington, you can't 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 don't always make sense to us, we really don't 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 USDA's 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. Farmers and their lenders need to know the rules before making plans and lending money for next year's crop.
The most vexing thing about Congress's 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.