September standoffs on the Hill

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There are never enough days in September for farmers, ranchers, and pennant-chasing baseball teams. Every day, whether spent in a combine, pasture or batter’s box, brings change to what’s real today and what’s possible tomorrow.

And it happens fast — September days don’t pass, they evaporate.

Congress, however, seems not to notice days, months or even possibilities. It continues its slow, circular march to some legislative nowhere.

That’s worrisome for two reasons.

Budget showdown

First, Congress needs to pass a federal budget by Oct. 1 to avoid a federal government shutdown. Republican Congressional leaders believe a budget deal with Democrats is possible if President Donald J. Trump allows them negotiating leeway on his much-demanded U.S.-Mexico border wall. But that leeway was not forthcoming by mid-month and only seven legislative working days remain until the Sept. 30 deadline.

Leeway or not, the border wall is just one of the budget’s problems. Another enormous problem is its projected deficit, a whopping $985 billion, or $90 billion over the current budget’s red ink which itself is a staggering 32 percent over the 2017 budget deficit.

How can Republican leaders who thunder on the need for fiscal conservatism continue this debt-laden binge spending? They simply believe you hate Democrats more than deficits.

Do you? You better, because GOP leaders hope to push another costly tax cut through Congress before November’s mid-term election, or less than a year after approving their completely debt-financed, $1.5 trillion tax cut.

All this deficit spending, history shows, will end very badly. In June, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reminded us just how badly.

Last year’s tax cut, it reported, coupled with our increased federal spending, will cause the U.S. deficit to balloon to “4.5 percent of GDP [gross domestic product] by next year — nearly double what it was just three years ago.”

That’s the largest percentage, the IMF noted, “since President Lyndon Johnson… boosted spending on the Vietnam War…”

Recall how that era of debt-financed spending ended? Here are two small hints: Paul and Volker.

The easiest ways to avoid such an inflationary — and, later, choking interest rate — future is to either raise taxes (not happening) or reduce spending. Congressional Republicans claim to be focusing on the latter.

Enter the 2018 farm bill

Like the federal budget, Congress must act by Oct. 1 to either pass the 2018 farm bill or extend the 2014 farm bill.

Current negotiations on the new bill remain stuck in “conference” over two major differences: stiff, House-inspired work requirements to receive federal food assistance and deep House cuts to conservation programs that include elimination of the popular, effective Conservation Stewardship Program.

Farm bill negotiators have circled both issues and each other for more than six weeks with no discernible movement toward compromise. House leaders continue to growl about growing federal deficits — that they helped fuel — as cause for ag spending cuts. Senate leaders, however, have no taste to cut either food assistance or conservation.

So the standoff continues and September leaks away.

The delay has supplied oxygen to revive other ag-related issues. A big one is the long-simmering need for immigration reform to, hopefully, address U.S. agriculture’s pressing labor shortage. This fight, like the food assistance and conservation fights, is mostly between GOP factions who can’t agree on how tough to make new rules on immigrant labor.

Tough is fine, but punishing leads to indignity, inequality, and — at least on the immigration issue on Capitol Hill — inaction.

But that’s where we are in Congress and as a nation. We’re now more focused on punishment rather than participation, on tariffs not trade, and on more debt and delays instead of simple fairness and straightforward solutions.

The problems aren’t going away. September, however, is.

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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

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