The 2008 federal farm bill is set to expire this week because conservative House Republicans are more interested in campaigning for re-election than in doing the work required to adopt new legislation. The inaction may hurt the GOP's effort to reclaim a majority in the U.S. Senate because of backlash in North Dakota, Montana, Indiana and other rural states with tightly contested races -- and rightly so.
The Senate did its job in June and adopted a five-year, $497 billion bill on a 64-35 vote. Although imperfect, the Senate's bill would save taxpayers $23 billion over 10 years. But in the House, Speaker John Boehner refused to allow a vote on the bill proposed by the House Agriculture Committee until after the November election.
At a time when rural America has been hammered by drought, GOP leaders are putting their self-interests before the needs of those they purport to serve. While Boehner insists he doesn't have the votes for the bill, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers, including Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, openly challenged that assertion last week.
The inaction is causing unnecessary stress and confusion for many Americans. Without a bill, farmers have been told that federal commodity programs will revert back to obsolete laws from the 1930s and 1940s, though when that would happen remains uncertain. Crop insurance programs won't be affected, which is good news for grain producers. But dairy and livestock producers, among the worst pinched by drought, could lose even more federal aid.
Farm bills aren't just about farmers, and it's no secret that the biggest obstacle in the House is the $80 billion Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly known as the federal food stamp program. The Senate bill cuts $400 million annually from the food and nutrition programs over the next decade, but many House Republicans, especially those aligned with the Tea Party, want $1.65 billion more in cuts. That would cut too deeply into needed programs that have seen even higher demand in these difficult economic times.
Both the Senate and House versions of the farm bill are far from perfect, but we disagree with those who say it's best to throw them out and start over. That would needlessly drive up costs and threaten reforms that have already won bipartisan agreement. Besides, Americans count on lawmakers to roll up their sleeves and rigorously debate bills. The give-and-take in each chamber leads to the kind of compromises that typically make farm bills better.
The Senate's bill irresponsibly bloats the nation's crop insurance program, virtually guaranteeing incomes to farmers when other professions aren't afforded that privilege. That's a fixable problem, as is the House's overzealous slicing of food stamps, which would hurt the poor and hungry. But each bill does offer important reforms, including supports for young farmers and organic producers, as well as the elimination of direct payments to grain farmers regardless of whether they actually plant crops.
Playing politics with the farm bill unnecessarily puts rural America in a state of uncertainty. Agriculture producers are forced to make decisions about their futures without knowing what kind of federal assistance will be available to them. These decisions include everything from the amount of labor needed to whether to buy, sell or rent land and equipment. Hundreds of farmers converged in Washington recently and urged Congress to stop the delay. It's too bad House leaders didn't listen.
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