The new farm bill — at whatever time it may finally become law — will not only be slimmed down money-wise, but says John Anderson, it will also represent a rather significant sea change in the long history of farm legislation, the attitude of the American public and policymakers toward farm law, and the way farm programs are administered.
And this could, in the years ahead, have an impact on agricultural research, trade promotion, and other smaller programs that have traditionally been lumped into omnibus farm bills in which the bulk of the spending was for commodity and nutrition titles.
“The benefit profile of the current omnibus legislation is different from that of the past,” Anderson said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association at Mississippi State University.
The Arkansas native and former MSU Extension economics professor, now senior economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, says land grant universities such as MSU “have a big stake in what goes on in this farm bill, because funding for ag research and other programs is included in it.
“There are also trade titles for market access and market development programs that are really important for some commodities. While these are relatively small amounts of money in terms of the overall legislation, they’re really important programs to those particular sectors.”
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While the wrangling and delays in the current farm bill debate have garnered most of the attention by the ag media, Anderson says there are other factors at work that reflect changing attitudes about agriculture — not just in the non-farm public and in the policymaking arena, but also in the farm community.
“I hear over and over again in Washington, ‘It’s hard to get farmers engaged on the farm bill — there’s just a lot of apathy.’ Farm programs just aren’t as critical to the survival of today’s farmers as they used to be.
“In the past, farm legislation was wildly popular,” he says. “It was big; there was a lot of money in it. So, you could hang these smaller programs such as research and trade, etc., onto an omnibus bill and the amount of money they represented wasn’t that big a deal. Now, we’re trying to attach all those programs to a farm title that’s fairly small and not that popular.”
This could particularly be a problem, he says, if the farm title and nutrition title are separated, as some factions in Congress want to do. “Funding for these smaller programs would stand out more in a standalone farm title and would get more attention from the budget cutters.”
The cost/benefit calculus of the omnibus model needs to be given some thought, Anderson says. “It’s something that needs to be talked about. This farm bill is the first time it’s come to the forefront, the first time that we’ve had to really contemplate this issue.”
Frayed farm coalition
The farm bill coalition that, for decades, has been a strong force on Capitol Hill, “has definitely frayed,” Anderson says. “The question: Is it broken?
“I’m not talking about differences between commodity groups, or regions of the country — I’m talking about the concept that we’ve had of the farm bill as an omnibus piece of legislation that has, at least since 1973, united various interests in this country to get farm policy done.
“The key component has been the urban/rural coalition, where rural congressmen are intensely interested in farm policy and urban congressmen are intensely interested in nutrition policy, and they put all that together in an omnibus bill. That has been a really strong coalition electorally — a huge bloc of Congress that had a real stake in getting a farm bill passed that represented both agriculture and nutrition interests. In that sense, yes, the coalition broken down some.
“Can they bring it back together and mend fences between the two sides, or is the era of really large-scale omnibus farm bills coming to an end? I don’t have an answer.”
The purpose of farm programs is not as clear to non-farmers as it used to be,” Anderson says. “In 1933, there were polls showing the majority of the U.S. population didn’t support farm programs, but with the Congress they were very popular and it was very clear to lawmakers what their purpose was. There was a crisis. The prefatory material to that legislation is shot-through with language about the emergency situation and it was very clear about the need.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, the framework for farm programs had become ‘the farm problem’ — a sector that just couldn’t adjust the way it needed to and needed to have the government involved in a solution. You can argue whether that framework was right or not, but it was very tangible and it was something people could get their minds around.
“The farm problem may still be there in some form, but it’s not what it used to be. It’s not a problem of low farm income, at least right now when commodity prices are quite high.
“If you asked 20 randomly-selected people on the street why we have farm programs, you’d probably get 20 different answers. That’s a liability. We want to maintain these programs, because we do want to have this institutional structure in place. I think we need to do a better job of articulating to the average voter the reasons why we have these programs.”
Changing role of crop insurance
A significant change that has come to the fore in the current farm bill debate, Anderson says, is the role of crop insurance. “This has changed the political dynamic in ways that we didn’t anticipate when we did the major reform acts in 1994 and 2000.
“When farm programs were first established, they gave a tremendous boost to farm organizations like Farm Bureau, National Farmers Union, and over time, the commodity associations that grew up to protect the interests and policy of the individual commodities.
“In the last five years, we’’ve seen the same thing happen with the crop insurance industry. You’re welcome to disagree, but I think the crop insurance industry groups have probably had more influence on this farm bill process than any of the commodity groups.
“They’ve been hugely important in the process — and that’s going to be the case going forward. Where’s the money now in the farm safety net? It’s not in Title 1 programs, it’s not in the commodity-specific programs — it’s in crop insurance. And so the crop insurance industry has a vested interest in being really engaged in the legislative process, and it’s going to figure more prominently than ever before in the kinds of farm programs we have.
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“I find it especially interesting that now the crop insurance companies will be the ones delivering the programs. We’ve not had that situation in agriculture before, where the group delivering the safety net has a vested interest in what the programs are. Going forward, it will be difficult to make changes and implement programs that the crop insurance industry may have a problem with.
“This makes for a different dynamic, and it’s not one we can fully appreciate because we haven’t’ experienced it before. “
As a side note, Anderson noted that the increasing number of pages in farm bills over the decades indicates just how complex the legislation has become.
“The National Ag Law Center in Arkansas has the full text of every farm bill ever passed. If we look at the 1933 and 1938 acts, these bills were only about 20 pages long. The 1933 act was one of the most monumental, transformative pieces of legislation ever passed, and it was only 19 pages. Farm bills have become monstrous — the current Senate bill is something like 1,400 pages.”