Do you want a 2013 five-year Farm Bill or not? Or are you just as happy to let Congress gnaw away at USDA’s budget to draw down the deficit while you and your customers/suppliers live under the extended 2008 bill?
The assault on ag began this week when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) unveiled his party’s plan to avoid most of the fiscal pain of the $85-billion in 2013 federal budget cuts brought on sequestration and set to begin March 1. His $110-billion plan is pretty much evenly divided between spending cuts and tax increases. The new taxes shouldn’t bother you unless you make $1-2 million a year. The “spending cuts” portion of the plan is simple: First you cut $27.5 billion out of defense spending, not such a tough thing given the enormity of the defense budget. Then you cut $27.5 billion out of USDA’s budget by killing all direct farm program payments beginning in 2014.
Now the sequestration pain of the entire federal government is being borne by defense and agriculture. Most argue both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees were pretty much going to kill direct payments anyway, so no big deal. Senate committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D, MI) says including cuts in farm program payments in the sequester package eliminates the need for her panel to try and massage old programs to change them into new programs. House ag panel Chair Frank Lucas (R, OK) disagrees; he called the Reid plan an “attack on rural America,” and says killing direct farm payments – a 53% reduction in USDA’s checkbook – just made his job writing a 2013 Farm Bill that much tougher.
The Reid plan, however, also represents the priority or lack thereof on getting a Farm Bill done this year. Just this week I heard some of the best minds on ag programs/policy in this town state for the record they wouldn’t be surprised if no Farm Bill is enacted this year. Why? Congress doesn’t care about the Farm Bill.
The reason Congress doesn’t care is there is no demand from farmers, researchers, biofuel refiners, specialty crop folks or the even the organic gang — beneficiaries of various farm programs – to enact a Farm Bill. There’s no countryside drumbeat among ag groups, no screaming to the media about the lack of a Farm Bill and economic pain in the heartland. The traditional grassroots demand for a comprehensive Farm Bill is eerily lacking this year.
Maybe you’re making a lot of money leasing/selling farm land for oil sand exploration or maybe you’re worried about the tax consequences of all that ethanol/biodiesel you’re refining. Maybe your income from record exports is embarrassingly high. Seriously, until agriculture gets noisy, Congress will sit on its thumbs. There are a lot of budget/spending/sequestration pressures and influences – along with their attendant political machinations – but unless those who live and die by the income safety net and other USDA programs demand their programs be treated with the appropriate priority and efficiency, USDA’s budget remains a deep pot of federal dollars from which budget hawks can draw to pay for other “stuff” considered important by its constituents.
Fundamentally, legislation gets done because the direct beneficiaries want the programs and they’re not shy about making their desires known. This is called oiling the squeaky wheel. Time to let your House and Senate members know if you really want a 2013 Farm Bill or not.