Bigger programs, bigger boondogles
In mid-June, the best guessers on Capitol Hill handicapped a probable 2012 farm bill this way: either the Senate passes its version by the Fourth of July to push the House to act by late summer or no farm law will pass until after the November general election.
That either-or-view takes in a lot of political, legislative and budgetary territory.
First, it suggests the House, the traditional birthplace of farm legislation, today lacks the leadership, bipartisanship and votes to steer the nation’s food and fiber policy without a roadmap from the Senate.
Second, the House’s failure ratchets up the pressure on the Senate’s chief aggies, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, the ag committee’s chair; and Kansan Pat Roberts, its ranking member, to get their crop-insurance-heavy, no-direct-payments bill through that politically poisonous body.
It’s a tough row to hoe.
By June 7, the day before the Senate was to open its farm bill debate, many senators were sufficiently disappointed with the committee bill that they had filed 90 amendments to add to or alter it. By June 11, the day debate was to begin, the amendment list had ballooned to 188. A day later, when debate finally began, amendments numbered 230.
Paring that hog-choking number down to something manageable fell to Stabenow and Roberts. Roberts, however, carries a disadvantage; his boss, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, was one of five ag committee members to vote against the bill when it cleared the committee in late April.
Roberts also must deal with the cotton, rice and peanut gang from the solidly Republican South. None are pleased that the pending bill leans heavily on new insurance programs at the expense of traditional payment schemes. And, oh, one of their champions, Saxby Chambliss, is a former senate ag chair.
Long-time Hill vote-counters say it’s unlikely the Southerners can derail the Stabenow-Roberts’ insurance idea. “Count ’em all and you still only have 20 or so votes,” one said. “That’s a long way from the 41 needed to kill the bill.”
If Roberts placates the grits gang, however, other Republicans threaten.
One, Sen. James Inhofe, of Oklahoma, labeled the Senate version as “a welfare bill.”
Another, tea party heavyweight Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, called the Senate farm bill “an affront to American taxpayers” because its backers “have the nerve to tell the American people (it) saves money” when the law’s estimated 10-year cost is $969 billion compared to the current farm bill’s 10-year price tag of $604 billion.
Democrat Stabenow must soothe her colleagues, too.
Her boss, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, from corn-soybeans Illinois, wants the taxpayer’s share of the Senate’s expanded crop insurance scheme capped for the biggest of the big farmers. Another, Jeanne Shaheen, of New Hampshire, seeks major reforms in the sugar program.
But Stabenow, in a conference call to reporters on June 13, maintained the bill would move forward, that some solution to the amendment backlog would be found and that Southern worries would be soothed.
What the chairwoman didn’t mention was that the bill’s major “reform” to U.S. farm policy, a huge expansion of crop insurance, is neither reform nor farm policy.
Indeed, Daryll Ray’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee wrote another missive on June 8-that’s four in four weeks-to, again, argue that a farm policy built on crop insurance will quickly turn into a taxpayer and farmer boondoggle should ag prices fall. (See links to all at www.farmandfoodfile.com)
Ray’s warnings echo predictions for the 1996 farm bill, Freedom to Farm. That one, engineered also by Pat Roberts when he chaired the House ag committee, cost three times its projected $42 billion because what everyone said wouldn’t happen-a drop in farm prices-happened.
The Senate bill largely banks on that same hope. As such, a prudent manager might want to buy the highest level of crop insurance available.
‘Course, if prices do bleed lower, that highest level will be too low to help.
The Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers in North America. Contact Alan Guebert at www.farmandfoodfile.com.
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