WASHINGTON — Imagine farmers dumping tons of corn and wheat on the federal government at wildly inflated prices.
That could be the result of congressional dysfunction if lawmakers can't come together to at least extend the current farm bill, which expires at the end of September.
Failure to act means permanent provisions in the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agriculture Act of 1949 would take effect once again.
It's the scythe that hangs over lawmakers' heads every five years when they sit down to craft a new farm bill. Pass something or you'll send the country back to the 1940s.
The Senate already approved a new farm bill, and the House Agriculture Committee this week passed its own version with significant differences.
But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, no fan of recent farm bills, is less than enthusiastic about bringing the measure up for a floor vote.
In the past when Congress has struggled to reach consensus on a new farm bill, it has passed temporary extensions of existing law to keep things humming along.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said this week that the makeup of the House could make such an extension far from routine.
Farm bills of today are five-year measures that temporarily suspend provisions of the 1949 law and replace them with the various government programs that have evolved over time.
Without congressional action, the nation's policies would become a patchwork that includes some from the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.
Crop insurance would remain in effect, but other programs, such as direct subsidy payments and some conservation funding, would lapse, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report that highlighted the difficulty of dealing with the “permanent” law.
The nation also would see the return of a 1949 system for supporting agriculture through “parity prices,” which aim to guarantee that farm commodities hold the same purchasing power they had in the early years of the 20th century.
Farmers would receive loans from the government based on the parity prices, and if the market price falls below the government levels, farmers could forfeit their crops to the government rather than repay the loans.
The report cited the case of wheat, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated in January at a market price per bushel of $6.86. That price was well above the 2008 farm bill support level of $2.94. But under permanent law, the parity price support level per bushel could be $13.13.
Essentially, a farmer could forfeit his crop to Uncle Sam for nearly double what he could make on the open market.
But the changes also would bring some bad news for farmers. Some currently subsidized crops, such as soybeans and peanuts, would not be guaranteed any payment under that part of permanent law.
“The existence of permanent law thus likely forces Congress to take action, because inaction generally is considered to have unacceptable consequences — that is, reverting to a policy that almost everyone would regret,” according to the CRS report.
Allowing today's high-tech agricultural industry to be governed by a system that includes the policies of a bygone era would be a chaotic, costly, unthinkable mess.
Then again, it wasn't so long ago that the idea of the country defaulting on its financial obligations was unthinkable. Congress went to the brink of that in last summer's showdown over the debt ceiling.
On farm policy, Boehner must contend with a sharply polarized House that includes liberals demanding the restoration of cuts to food-stamp funding and conservatives appalled at the bill's nearly trillion-dollar price tag.
Still, there is reason to hope.
The House committee's vote opened the possibility of direct talks between the House and Senate agriculture panels on a compromise bill that could be presented to the full House later as a completed package. That's what happened recently with a two-year highway bill that had divided House Republicans.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the committee's chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told him she's optimistic that the two chambers can work together on their differences.
Nelson also said the farm lobby could help advance the cause.
“I would hope that the ag groups that put a lot of pressure on the Senate would put some pressure on the House,” Nelson said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, was skeptical about suggestions that Congress might fail to act on the legislation because the government has to keep the food-stamp program going and about 80 percent of the farm bill's price tag goes to nutrition programs such as food stamps.
“You aren't going to have food stamps without having a farm bill,” Grassley said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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