Road to final farm bill murky

Aug 16, 2013
by WLJ

Ask three agricultural economists what is likely to happen with farm bill negotiations the rest of 2013 and you might get a half-dozen predictions. One thing seems clear: It’s a whole new ballgame, with potentially significant long-term ramifications, now that the traditional farm policy-nutrition package tie has been split by the House.

The experts note that the farm policy-only package passed in late July by House Republicans after they stripped out its food-stamp provisions now heads to an uncertain and likely contentious conference committee with a Senatepassed bill that has both nutrition and farm elements.

It’s likely it will take many months to sort out, perhaps going past the ostensible Sept. 30 deadline to the “real” early-January deadline, the economists said.

“The ag coalition is starting to fracture. You’re seeing more of what I’d call the general economic debate coming into the farm bill debate,” said Chad Hart, agricultural economist at Iowa State University. For decades, there was a “natural synergy” to package the food stamps and agricultural policy issues as it brought both rural and urban lawmakers together in consensus.

The political environment has changed, said Brad Lubben, public policy specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

While there’s still a spirit of compromise on these issues, however tenuous, in the Senate, House members have become more ideological.

“Redistricting has left us with fewer competitive races, where members have to worry more about their primary races than the general election,” Lubben said.

In that environment, members from both parties are likely to take their cues from their respective political bases. That leads to increased ideology.

“For a farm bill to get through this year is going to take compromise, but it’s hard to look at the political landscape and see where that compromise can come from,” Hart said.

“Whatever Brad and Chad told you is probably wrong and whatever I tell you is probably wrong too,” joked Pat Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Institute at the University of Missouri.

“Things are getting weird and very interesting,” Westhoff said.

Many of the House Republicans who voted for the farm bill likely have little enthusiasm for it, but supported it in the face of pressure from their leadership, he added.

House Republicans may try to pass a nutrition-only bill that could become part of the conference process, or they could go into conference without an official position on the nutrition package. That would put them in a weak position with Senate colleagues, Lubben said.

“There’s nothing that says they couldn’t pass a farm-only bill through conference but I don’t think the Senate has much enthusiasm for that,” Westhoff added.

“This seems likely to drag on for months.” — Dan Moser, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension