For the first time in more than 60 years, Congress failed this week to pass a farm bill, choosing instead to take up the issue during the lame-duck session after November’s elections.
And as with much of the dysfunction in Washington these days, both parties have earned their share of the blame.
A bipartisan bill proposed in July by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma would have extended the law for five years – a priority for farmers who’d rather not see the bill used as a pawn in negotiations over the year-end “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes and spending cuts.
But hopes for quick passage were dashed when the bill’s markup was delayed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who seems content to wait until after the elections to see if his party gains any leverage.
Cantor is skeptical of Lucas’ $957 billion package and would like to use the opportunity to crack down on school lunch and food stamp programs, which are funded through the farm bill. The same goes for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has decried such agricultural subsidies as “Soviet-style” programs.
To be fair, the sheer size of a farm bill makes it a magnet for wasteful spending. According to University of Missouri - Columbia agricultural economist John E. Ikerd, more than 60 percent of all farm subsidies in 2009 went to states whose senators serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and four of the top five congressional districts receiving subsidies had representatives on the House Agriculture Committee. More than half of all farm subsidies go to just 35 congressional districts.
But what Cantor and Boehner don’t realize is how important the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) is for dairy farmers. To insulate them from the volatility of milk prices, MILC pays producers when the price falls below a certain level.
After Lucas’ five-year bill failed in September, a three-month measure was shot down by Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who demanded a five-year bill. A stopgap measure extending MILC may have been the right thing to do for farmers, but locking in five years of pork was priority No. 1 for Peterson, who receives more campaign donations from the agriculture lobby than any other House member. A three-month measure also wouldn’t have allowed Peterson to exploit an internal Republican rift between fiscal hawks such as Cantor and Boehner and heartlanders such as Tea Party freshman Kristi Noem, who was one of a handful of Republicans to join dozens of Democrats in signing a House discharge petition to force a vote on the five-year bill.
Let Congress’ failure on the farm bill be a warning for voters headed to the polls next month. Regardless of party affiliation, the ability to compromise and cooperate should trump the values of spite and brinkmanship.