Every American who eats uses the farm bill.
This is as true for city dwellers as it is for those who live on the nation’s farms and ranches. It is true for millionaires and for those on public assistance.
In the absence of a modern farm bill, the economic systems built around agriculture would suffer, from planting decisions and farm equipment sales to food prices at the store, fuel costs and bank lending. A gallon of milk, industry observers say, could quadruple in cost. Is your budget ready for $15 milk?
Such widespread impacts are why it was discouraging to see the House of Representatives defeat a new farm bill last week. And disheartening to see some Democrats burst into applause as it failed.
Those Democrats might have blocked $20 billion in cuts to recent, recession-related increases in food stamp funding, but at what greater cost? House Republicans, too, deserve a share of the blame for making the farm bill the vehicle for new welfare requirements they knew would strip away needed Democratic votes.
So a House that once seemed poised to help American farm policy evolve — from a system of direct crop subsidies to one more focused on risk management through crop insurance for losses and price fluctuations — abandoned its post.
While the Senate approved its version of the bill on a bipartisan 66-27 vote this month, rejection of the House bill leaves agriculture in the lurch.
The House failure denies the nation’s farmers the certainty they need to plan for the long term, decide what to plant, what to sell, what to borrow and what to invest in their operations.
Neither the House nor Senate bill, each costing nearly $1 trillion over 10 years, was perfect. Each has strengths and weaknesses and could be improved. But either was better than doing nothing; both are better than another short-term renewal of current farm policy.
No one benefits from another kick of the can. Farmers would face more uncertainty. Taxpayers wouldn’t see the estimated savings of $18 billion in the Senate bill or $33 billion in the House version.
The House bill improved farm policy with amendments like one from Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., which would have capped crop subsidy payments to individual farms at $250,000 a year and made sure payments reached working farmers.
Most of the farm bill’s funding — nearly 80 percent — goes to nutrition assistance programs like food stamps, not to farmers, conservation programs or rural economic development. On its face, the Democratic argument against cuts in nutrition programs sounds like the sequestration bogeyman. Funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has doubled since 2008, to about $80 billion a year. In an improving economy, couldn’t a program of that size shoulder a modest cut somewhere?
Commendably, every Midlands senator and congressman supported a new farm bill. As Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, put it: “Passing a farm bill isn’t optional. It’s a necessity ... for agriculture producers who need certainty and predictability so they can invest in the future.”
Instead, the nation again faces the possibility of reverting to the outdated farm policy of 1949, which is what happens if Congress takes no action.
Omaha, like nearly every American city, traces a significant portion of its economic activity to income from agricultural sources. A 2012 study found one out of every seven jobs in eastern Nebraska was tied to agriculture, including in the Omaha area.
This region, like all part of the country, also has people who need food assistance. Much of that money makes its way back to farm country by way of cities like ours.
There’s been some talk of separating farm programs from nutrition assistance. If this Congress can’t reach agreement, then it could be time to consider such a shift in strategy.
But those two programs were wrapped into one “farm” bill for a reason, because linking them helped rally big city support for what too many mistakenly viewed as a rural issue.
The farm bill is much more than a rural issue. It is a kitchen table issue, an economic development issue, a food-security issue and a driver of international trade. It is in the nation’s interest to pass a stable, predictable, long-term farm bill.
Both the House and Senate bills would have given farmers, environmental stewards and agribusiness a better chance to plan. That should be the goal, instead of scoring political points in a game where nobody wins.