Farm Bill reduces spending, grows opportunity

By Senator Mike Johanns

Farmers and ranchers across the country may seem a world apart from lawmakers in Washington, but they share a common challenge: How do you stretch a limited supply of resources to meet an ever-growing demand?

For ag producers, the question is about feeding a growing population with limited land and natural resources to cultivate a crop or raise a herd. In Washington, it’s about finding ways to be more efficient with taxpayer dollars, especially in the midst of a slow economic recovery.

Our national debt is $17 trillion, and our habit of spending more than the government takes in is causing significant stress on important government programs. So it is imperative that we take every responsible opportunity to reduce government spending.

One great way to achieve meaningful savings is by passing the farm bill, which is being negotiated in conference committee. Disagreements exist on several fronts, but the final product is likely to save between $20 billion and $30 billion, regardless of who comes out on top in the policy debate.

But the farm bill is much more than a tool to reduce government spending. Fresh ag policy has proved elusive for those who feed and fuel our world since it expired last year. Ongoing droughts and freak blizzards in our region underscore the need for replenished disaster assistance that expired in 2011.

Farmers and ranchers tell me they can live without costly annual direct payments, and they are happy to pay into a crop insurance program that provides a backstop in tough years. They are prepared to do their part to help reduce government spending so long as they have the risk management tools they need to succeed. Lawmakers must also be prepared to provide these tools while reducing government spending.

The House and Senate plans both eliminate direct payments and streamline duplicative program in the ag portion of the bill, which ultimately save about $13 billion dollars. The food stamp program is the biggest challenge in farm bill negotiations. The Senate bill saves $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or about one-half of a percent. The House bill saves about ten times more. Admittedly, there’s a lot of pasture between those two figures. And both sides should be prepared to live with something in the middle.

As these negotiations move forward, we must acknowledge that we are working with a limited pot of resources. Nobody wants to block assistance from folks in need, and we should seek ways to protect limited resources for these families. One way is to crack down on states that enroll folks who don’t meet federal SNAP requirements. This would save $20 billion and ensure limited resources are being used by those truly in need.

The farm bill is not out of the woods yet, but passing it would provide needed certainty for the rural sector. It would guarantees real savings while protecting vulnerable families. And it may be just the example Congress needs to inspire responsible solutions to the fiscal challenges facing our nation.

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