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2012 Farm Bill: Do Agriculture Leaders Have Enough Gas and Road Left to Finish the Job?

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For anyone who follows what goes on (or what doesn’t) in Washington, it’s a well-known fact that significant pressure on members to act is a major ingredient for the success of any legislation, regardless of merits. Now, with the number of legislative days quickly waning for the 112th Congress, agriculture leaders are facing internal and external pressures that are driving their recent efforts to finalize a bill, which also gives more shape to the potential fates of a 2012 farm bill.

First, agriculture leaders understand the need to act. They have heard the increasingly concerned calls to action from many constituents in the food and agriculture system, and share those concerns. After the 2008 farm bill was allowed to expire on October 1, without current authority, agriculture programs are set to revert back to permanent law which includes a portfolio of outdated and impractical commodity pricing and subsidy programs. The fact that the farm bill was allowed to expire was never because any of the agriculture leaders thought this was in itself a good idea, but rather that it could lead to significant and necessary pressure on congress to act and achieve a bicameral compromise before any real consequences are realized. That time is quickly approaching. With the expired dairy provisions, consumers would start to see a spike in milk prices in the new year. This is important. While only a fraction of legislators include agriculture as a major priority for their legislative decisions, every legislator cares about the price for a gallon of milk just as they care about the prices their constituents are paying for a gallon of gas.

Whether pressure from within the agriculture community is enough to drive action is yet to be seen. Sharp disagreements remain. Most significantly, the House and Senate maintain opposing priorities for what a modern commodity title should include. The House put forward a Price Loss Coverage program that would trigger payments to farmers when market prices fall below target levels. The Senate rejected this proposal in favor of a program that would compensate growers for part of their revenue insurance deductibles. Recently, agriculture leaders, who historically enjoy one of the more consistently amicable bipartisan relationships in Congress, have each indicated their willingness to compromise to reach agreement on commodity programs.

As the week comes to a close, both sides have dug in their heels on what an acceptable compromise on the commodity title must look like. One could assume that such strong positioning is necessary to allow each side to staunchly defend their bargaining positions in order to claim major concessions from the other chamber as negotiations proceed. While this may all just be necessary gamesmanship and standard politicking, time is running short for leaders to engage in such a slow-dance for long.

What’s more is that the commodity title isn’t the only challenge to be addressed. Agriculture leaders need a spending target on the bill from the White House and House GOP leadership in order to resolve the wide differences on cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This is not likely to be concluded any time soon. The spending target for a new farm bill, including the scope and scale of SNAP cuts, is expected to be decided at the highest levels. Agriculture leaders can’t expect a spending target until the broader fiscal cliff negotiations develop further and even then, they might still be waiting.

To date, there hasn’t even been a commitment from the White House or House leadership that a farm bill would be included as part of any agreement. Further, it is yet impossible to know whether there will even be a fiscal cliff agreement before the end of this congress that a farm bill could be attached to.

No doubt, the farm bill is not a driving priority of the fiscal cliff negotiations, but the potential savings from agriculture will continue to be attractive to negotiators to include as part of any agreement. If a fiscal cliff agreement of some sort is reached, and a new farm bill is ready that could pass both chambers, it’s increasingly likely that the farm bill would get a ride. That said, there is concern that a fiscal cliff agreement could include reductions in spending to agriculture, such as the widely popular elimination of direct payments (worth $49 billion over the next decade), with or without a new farm bill.

The potential for the White House and House leadership to include spending cuts to agriculture as part of any fiscal cliff agreement, regardless of whether a new farm bill is ready, is the second driving pressure for agriculture leaders to reach an agreement on a package. Taking savings from farm programs without also advancing a comprehensive new farm bill would compromise agriculture leaders’ ability to use part of this savings to implement a new farm program infrastructure, regardless of whether it looks like the senate or house proposals. This outcome would be extremely unpopular among the agriculture community.

With such significant differences between the House and the Senate on what a new farm bill should include, and no guarantee that there’s a future for a new farm bill this year, it’s not expected that a compromise will be reached before the last possible moment.

So now, with three weeks and counting until the next congress is gaveled in, the questions on HFHP’s mind are whether agriculture leaders have enough leverage and enough time to find a path forward for a 2012 farm bill. And then, of course, we must ask ourselves whether that would be the farm bill that our food and agriculture system needs and that our HFHP community can support.

Originally posted on the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition blog on Dec. 13.

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Gabrielle Serra will be based in the D.C. office of the Public Health Institute where she will dedicate half her time toward staffing and representing the Coalition at the federal level. She is a leader with extensive experience working on federal food and nutrition policy and political matters. Most recently she worked with Meridian Institute as a senior mediator on food and agriculture policy issues and as nutrition policy advisor to the Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor Committee. Gabrielle also worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) where she served in several roles, most notably as a special assistant and policy advisor to the Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, and as a program analyst in the Child Nutrition Division of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. Gabrielle holds an M.S. in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and a B.S. in Health Promotion and Education from Oregon State University.

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