Farm bill still simmers in Congress

November 16, 2018
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Now that one of the most expensive mid-term elections is over, voters shouldn’t ignore the lame duck Congress that may decide to complete some important unfinished business.

Among the most important legislation that remains unfinished is the 2018 Farm Bill.

Election results that strengthened the Republican hold in the Senate and flipped the House to the Democrats may motivate the lame duck Congress to move on the legislation. The bill was stuck in conference committee when lawmakers returned home to campaign. Whispers grew louder at their leaving that Congress was willing to extend the 2014 Farm Bill to give lawmakers more time to reach a deal.

Farm bill extensions have occurred before because Congress wasn’t willing to prioritize agriculture policy. Extensions increase uncertainty in a profession where farmers shoulder an immense amount of risk.

Progress on the 2018 legislation ground to a halt due to the House’s determination to increase work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients. Called SNAP, the program provides financial support to low-income citizens for food purchases.

It is lamentable that SNAP is packaged with farm legislation and administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rural lawmakers argue the marriage is essential so that farm bills gain the support of their urban counterparts.

There is some validity in that position, but often consigns farming concerns to the back of the bus.

Congress has been adept at delaying farm bill legislation before rushing to pass something that doesn’t meet farmers’ needs.

The 2014 Farm Bill, which provided farmers more help when grain prices were good and less help when markets are weak, is a prime example.

The strong safety nets that included price supports and land set asides have been shredded. Measures in the current legislation to prop up struggling dairy producers have proven to be woefully inadequate.

Would it be best if the 2018 Farm Bill was completed by the new Congress?

That would require the new members to be quickly brought up to speed. Fresh faces include Republican Jim Hagedorn in Minnesota’s 1st District and in Iowa, Democrats Abby Finkenauer in District 1 and Cindy Axne in District 3. The Iowans should be angling for seats of the House ag committee.

Colin Peterson, a conservative Democrat and once chairman of the House ag committee, may find himself back in that position. In any case, he’ll be an improvement over lame duck chairman Mike Conaway of Texas.

It also would be a tremendous help if Ag Sec. Sonny Perdue of Georgia showed some leadership.

Thus far, Perdue has been largely silent on farm bill talks, letting both Senate and House ag committees write bills without his input.

In the weeks ahead, Perdue should lobby lawmakers hard for action on the farm bill. Rumors are that President Donald Trump plans a major shakeup of his White House team.

It would benefit farmers if the president brought in a new USDA leader — one who is both more visible and a louder spokesperson for farmers’ interests.

The message that should be shouted at every opportunity is the need to get the farm bill done now.

Throw in a healthy dose of real policy reform and farmers would have a helpful partner as they deal with tough economic times.

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