With the failure of the House to pass a farm bill, there is “a lot of talk now” in Washington about separating the commodity title and the nutrition title, says John Anderson, senior economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“We’ve been asked about this a lot over the years,” he said at the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s joint soybean, corn, wheat, and feed grains advisory committee meeting at Grenada, Miss.
“For my entire career, people have asked why we even have nutrition titles in the farm bill, that they ought to separate them. The standard response has pretty much been, ‘When you separate them, that’ll be the last farm bill you’ll have.’ There’s a lot more interest in nutrition programs than commodity programs, and that has been used to build a coalition to get a farm bill passed.
“Until now, I’ve never really heard policymakers talk about separating the two. But, in the last two weeks, I’ve seen, read, and heard policymakers and members of Congress seriously talking about separating those provisions.
“There is a real interest in doing it,” Anderson says, “but I think for the ag community there is real danger in it. It would be super tough to get enough interest in our commodity programs if the nutrition programs were to completely removed.
Should nutrition programs and farm programs go their separate ways? Vote here.
“There’s a reason that we combine nutrition programs and commodity programs — so we can reach a critical mass of interest to get the legislation passed. If we separate them, I think the danger is that we’ll never be able to get enough people who have enough of a stake in commodity programs to even get the commodity programs brought up, much less get them passed.
“That’s been the conventional wisdom, and I think there’s a pretty strong logic to that.”
What happens now toward getting farm legislation passed is “anybody’s guess,” Anderson says.
“The House has spent two years trying to find a compromise position and a common ground that would get the 218 votes needed to pass a farm bill. The question is, can we now define enough common ground to get a farm bill that will satisfy enough people to it signed into law?
“There are a lot of bones of contention between the factions in the House, many of which have nothing to do with the commodity title of the bill. Oddly enough, I think the commodity title is one of the least controversial parts of the legislation.”
There has been speculation about the House picking up the Senate bill, Anderson says. “Theoretically, that’s a possibility, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. If the House, working on their own, with their own membership, couldn’t define a position that was acceptable to a majority, I don’t know how they’re going to take something, as is, from the Senate and find it acceptable.
“There’s a lot of negotiating going on within the House. I think there is a strong desire to get something wrapped up this year. Something has to be done, because the current farm bill extension runs out in September.
“Was the House vote failure enough of a wakeup call? Has it rattled enough people to spur them to get things done, to say we’ve got to quit playing games, rally the troops, whip things into shape, and get a farm bill passed?”
With the situation in Washington, Anderson quipped, “Even a biblical Moses might not be a strong enough lawgiver to make it happen.
“I think there was some legitimate surprise that the vote went the way it did. For two years, they’ve been pushing this legislation, whipping this vote count hard. They knew it was controversial. So the question becomes, how could they let it get that far and not know they had the votes? And going forward, can they get those votes?”
Could the same bill be brought back in the House again, Anderson was asked?
“Not that I know of,” he says, “but I think they’re trying to figure a back-door way to get it done. There are a lot of parliamentary tricks, but barring that, it would be tough to do. You’d have to start in the committee again, go through all those fights again, cope with all the problems again.
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“Further complicating matters is that the budget situation is not going to get any easier. If anything, the environment in the House may get tougher, because there are other divisive issues such as immigration that might drive the factions even further apart.
“Something has to be done by September, but it’s going to be a really tough environment. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has already said we’re not going to have another short-term extension of the current legislation.
“I can see him eating those words,” Anderson laughed.
“I think something will be done by the end of September — but whether it’ll be an extension or a new bill, who knows?”
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