When will Congress approve another farm bill? Or was the 2008 Farm Bill the end of the line? Never before have political parties and the House and the Senate been so diametrically opposed over farm legislation. For the past 80 years, farm policy has brought Democrat and Republican together with the House and Senate approving new farm policy ever four (formerly) or five (lately) years. It was a time to support the nation’s largest industry, which fed the world and churned out economic value, and provided a home and lifestyle for everyone’s ancestors. Not anymore.

After the U.S. Senate approved a five-year farm bill proposal in June with 64 votes and 12 Republican Senators joining the Democratic majority, the House has approached a new farm bill with the fits and starts reminiscent of a crank tractor on farms when Depression Era farm policy was first approved. The House Ag Committee began holding hearings over a year ago in preparation for a new farm bill, but its members were the only ones apparently concerned about renewing the legislation set to expire Sept. 30. 

Based on the long series of hearings last year, and a new series of hearings this year, Chairman Frank Lucas of the House Agriculture Committee assembled a proposal for his committee that was approved in mid-July. But because Lucas had been one of the four top Congressional ag leaders that proposed their own farm bill last fall, his proposal looked more like what was passed in the Senate than what the rest of the GOP-controlled House wanted. They wanted radical change, and Farm Policy usually is a function of evolution, not revolution.

One-year extension proposal
Bowing to pressure from his top House leaders, Lucas scrapped his five year plan, and agreed to move forward with a one-year extension, along with some drought relief measures for the livestock industry. To the House leadership, crop insurance is something akin to phlegm and should be discarded, or in the least watered down for the rank and file budget hawks to be able to swallow. That had not been the Lucas plan, since crop insurance was the only remaining thread in the farm bill safety net, and this was a year that everyone should have had access to it.

The one year extension of the 2008 farm bill was initially billed as a means of getting to a five-year farm bill, but the Senate Democrats were reluctant to accept that and thought their crop insurance program would provide sufficient drought relief for everyone. The Senate was likely to reject a one-year extension and reject any ad hoc drought relief the House would have sent before the August recess.

But the GOP in the House could have passed a one-year farm bill extension, gone home for August, and blamed the Senate Democrats for rejecting the desires of Cornbelt farmers. That would have been great election fodder. But it was never given a chance to work. Instead the 48-page farm bill extension (compared to the 1,200+ page Senate farm bill) has been pulled from consideration. Interestingly, Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas apparently did not even want it on his committee’s website, and it only appeared on the web site of the House Rules Committee.

Drought relief?
The House may still create a drought relief package, which could be similar to its proposal of last Friday that trimmed funds from Direct Payments and Conservation, and re-authorized several livestock-oriented support programs to help producers weather the drought. If the House passes that late this week as tentatively scheduled, the Senate may not have time for consideration, prior to its August recess, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 6 and end Sept. 7. 

With the farm bill scheduled to expire Sept. 30, and political divisions as large as they are, the chances are declining rapidly for any resolution before the end of September. But it will not be the first time. Many of the last few farm bills have been approved well after expiration of their predecessors. However, agriculture is less challenged than it was when farm programs involved acreage setasides, and planting season pushed the Congress to act.

The 2002 Farm Bill was not approved until many of those close to the process were beginning to detail the permanent legislation that would have Congress guaranteeing farmers parity prices, which interestingly are not that far away from current commodity prices. It is doubtful that the existence of “permanent law” would scare the members of Congress who have philosophical differences with a farm safety net, promoting conservation, and supplying food aid to the needy. They could easily push the “delete” button, not only on periodic farm bills, but also on the permanent legislation they modify every five years. That would leave the nation with the need for ad hoc farm policy actions which are akin to burps and hiccups instead of continuity of policy.

After a month of floor inactivity on the farm bill, the U.S. House has both declined to advance a five-year plan and a one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. The House leadership says it will provide some type of drought relief for farmers before it adjourns for the month of August, but likely not in time for Senate consideration before its adjournment. With the House unable to find votes for either a one-year extension or a full five-year farm policy, one must wonder if the great political rift between the House and Senate and between the political parties will spell the end for periodic farm legislation.