By J.L. Schmidt - Statehouse Correspondent, The Nebraska Press Association
For nearly 80 years – most recently in 5-year-chunks – the United States has provided support to farmers and rural residents through a variety of programs and initiatives bundled into what has traditionally been called the “Farm Bill.”
The package, which sets national policy in agriculture, nutrition, conservation and forestry, was last passed in 2008 and was to have been passed by the Congress, which just left Washington for its “Presidential Break.”
Several agricultural groups have voiced their displeasure with Congress for its inability to overcome partisan deadlock and pass the bill, which cleared the House Agriculture Committee on a 35-11 vote in July. House Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, confirms that the bill will not be dealt with until after the election. Farm groups and some members of Congress say the measure is too important to leave to a lame duck Congress.
John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs says expiration of the Farm Bill on September 30 won’t be the end of the world, but it will make it much more difficult to restart many of the programs that are crucial to rural areas. Among those is the Rural Micro Entrepreneur Assistance Program, which provides loans, and technical assistance for rural small business development.
Experts say most of the farm and nutrition programs (including food stamps) covered by the bill won’t be affected until January 1, 2013. Others are concerned that this particular version of the Farm Bill (The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 [S. 3240]) represents the most significant reforms in agricultural policy in decades. The bill ends direct payments, streamlines and consolidates programs and reduces the budget deficit by $23 billion.
The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the agriculture sector has experienced unprecedented strength and growth with a record net farm income in 2011 and 2012 exceeding $90 billion each year. In addition, USDA says that in three decades the five years of highest earnings for farmers have occurred since 2004.
Two of Nebraska’s three Congressional Districts represent the majority of the state’s farmers. Even though both representatives are Republicans, they are being painted almost as polar opposites on the issue. First District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Lincoln is among a handful of Republicans who have signed a “discharge petition” to push for action, sooner than later.
Rep. Adrian Smith of Gering, who represents Nebraska’s sprawling Third District, said he is frustrated and disappointed with the lack of agreement on the measure but feels major reforms need to be ironed out and can be without a major lapse in policy. Most of the programs authorized by the Farm Bill have been funded through next March by a House-passed Continuing Resolution that includes crop insurance and commodity programs, which are tabbed to cover the 2012 harvest.
Smith and Fortenberry agree on one thing. In the midst of a heated national election, politics has hijacked the Farm Bill.