COVID aid fight cakewalk if “2021 Farm Bill” looms

The current five-year omnibus Farm Bill expires in 2023.  It used to be the painful and frustrating gestation of a five-year Farm Bill was the ultimate manifestation of “sausage-making,” as politicos over the centuries have described the imprecise act of making law.  It’s true, COVID 19 economic mitigation is giving the Farm Bill a run for its money, but already there’s talk about new “Farm Bill issues” — to be dealt with in 2021.

Take it as the latest example of the craziness that is the year 2020, but there are several members of Congress from both sides of the aisle in both chambers – no doubt blinded by the upcoming election or who’ve never been through a Farm Bill evolution – who advocate the process of rewriting the current $900-billion Farm Bill should begin early in the new Congress in the 117th Congress.

Now, take the ongoing negative economic pressure of Trump administration tariff wars or threats thereof, mix in the of the massive systemic COVID 19 disruption of the economy generally and the food production/distribution systems specifically which exposed fundamental weaknesses in both, and just for grins, throw in a fast-growing bipartisan political will to do something about climate change – think about a massive rewrite of USDA conservation authority and spending, arguably the biggest issue facing farmers in the next Congress – and you have a whole new recipe for true sausage making.

It’s also important to not lose sight of shrinking farmer cash receipts while there’s a nearly 66% run-up in federal government payments to producers.

Jumping early into the Farm Bill pool is rhetoric mostly coming from the House Agriculture Committee’s GOP contingent, where the ranking member slot, now held by former panel chair Rep. Mike Conaway (R, TX), will be up for grabs if as expected, the Democrats retain chamber control.  The focus is on a possible two- or three-year Farm Bill, a notion put out there by Rep. Rick Crawford (R, AR), one of those seeking Conaway’s chair. The goal is obvious: Rejigger federal farm programs to jack prices higher. The buzz words increasingly used in committee include “supply management” and “set-asides.”  Déjà vu all over again.

It’s tough to find any public comment on the wisdom of a 2021 revisit to the existing Farm Bill made by Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D, MN), currently engaged in one of his toughest reelection fights.  However, moderate Rep. Jim Costa (D, CA), current chair of the livestock and foreign agriculture subcommittee, said this week he thinks the committee should consider beginning Farm Bill hearings early in 2021. “We’ve dealt with an emergency crisis here in the last six months, but that may not be sufficient to deal with the next two years,” Costa said. “And so, we need to be open to all of the above.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, the only member of Congress to chair both House and Senate ag committees and who’s survived more Farm Bills than any other breathing member of either chamber, comes at the notion of reopening the current Farm Bill pragmatically.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Roberts thinks the idea stinks.  

Roberts, who’s retiring from Congress in December after nearly 40 years to Kansas, knows too well Farm Bills are wildly unpopular among members in both parties, if only because of their price tags and seemingly unrelated issues, including climate change, energy and federal food stamps.  He’s also a keen reader of the political winds. 

With Congress more partisan than at any time in recent memory, Roberts gives the following advice:  “Be careful what you wish for.  I think opening up the Farm Bill, given that politics are on steroids right now, would be a very difficult task.” 

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