Another tango, another delay

For all last year’s talk about completing a farm bill before this year’s spring planting, the operative message from Congress to farmers now appears to be “Take two aspirins and we’ll call you in June.”

The first part of the message, take two aspirins, is good advice for anyone attempting to sort out today’s federal budget process and what it likely means for any farm bill.

Here’s how one of Capitol Hill’s keenest ag eyes, Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, described the upcoming Congressional budget round-robin in a January blog post after House Republican leaders announced their plan to raise the federal debt ceiling through mid-May:

“If the new plan succeeds” — it has: the White House and Senate Democrats agreed to it after Hoefner posted this analysis — “there would be a February debate and decision over sequestration, [the across-the-board cuts agreed to the Aug. 2011 budget deal] a March debate and decision over the second half of Fiscal Year 2013 funding, an April and May debate and decision over a Fiscal Year 2014 budget resolution” and “another need to raise the debt ceiling” shortly thereafter.

If you’re keeping score, that’s one sequestration, two fiscal years’ budgets, three debates, three budget agreements and one “need” to raise the debt limit again by Memorial Day.

Gee, what could go wrong with that plan?

Two-step

Yet this is the legislative tango, noted Hoefner, who has watched farm bill sausage-fests for 35 years, at the top of the Congressional dance card.

These intricate steps promise a “continuing process of governing by manufactured crisis after manufactured crisis,” he wrote, that will put off any “mark-up of a new farm bill” to “late May or June at the earliest.”

Of course, little of the debt dance has anything to do with finding new ways to make government more effective — let alone write a farm bill — when nearly everyone involved in the search wants political victory first and budget reform second.

House Republican leaders want it, too; that’s why they adopted the debt ceiling delay. They wound up as potted plants in the New Year’s fiscal cliff deal when caucus members balked at the Speaker’s ideas. Now they’re back, breathing fire.

But this tactic, three more months of gun-barrel talks, rests almost entirely on the idea that a majority of American voters want every federal agency, program and farm subsidy cut without fail or favor. Do they? Do you?

You had better be because, if House Republican leaders are to be taken at their word, that’s the way they see this three-step, three-month battle ending.

Moreover, to make certain they have your attention, House GOP leaders also announced they would approve a 10-year balanced budget bill. If that, too, is to be taken seriously, that means other tough nuts — like Social Security reform, Medicare cuts, the Pentagon budget, more farm program spending — will be on the butcher block even as Congress fights it out in current budget and debt limit talks.

Crop insurance off table

One thing that won’t be cut in these knife fights is crop insurance. It somehow (no one remembers exactly how) received White House protection in the August 2011 budget deal.

Direct payment schemes and conservation programs, however, would likely get sliced $4 billion and $2.4 billion, respectively, in a new 10-year farm bill.

House leaders had to gulp, though, when Senate Democrats and the White House quickly agreed to the debt extension deal. They agreed because they knew that not even the tiniest element of the GOP’s big plans would survive a full House vote without Democratic votes. As such, they, not GOP bosses, hold the key to any final deal.

What that means is that rather than work out any debt-budget-entitlement reform package — and, possibly, a farm bill, too — this month, Congress will waste another three months dancing around “manufactured crisis after manufactured crisis.”

And that carries the very real possibility of no 2013 farm bill in July, but another 2008 farm bill extension in September.

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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