WASHINGTON – A group of Minnesota farmers who flew to Washington this week to beg members of Congress to pass a new farm bill arrived with great expectations. But after two days talking to people on Capitol Hill, they headed home discouraged about their chances of getting what they want.
As the 2008-2012 farm bill heads toward expiration Sept. 30, farmers across the country appear unlikely to get anything more than an extension of the current law, or worse — a return to outdated funding rules dating back decades.
“It seems right now that this is not a high priority,” said Lynn Jostock, who walked the halls of Senate and House office buildings with a group of other Minnesotans.
Jostock and her husband, Ed, own a small farm near Rochester. With their hay barn half full because of weather problems and disaster relief programs out of money, the couple came to Capitol Hill to explain why they need the long-term safety net provided by a five-year farm bill.
The Jostocks cling to the notion that the U.S. Senate and House can bridge a partisan divide and pass a bill by the end of the calendar year. But many of their fellow Minnesota farmers are resigned to more uncertainty after their visit.
As badly as they want a new farm bill, neither Peter nor Stacy Ripka of Ogilvie believes Congress will pass one by year’s end. At least one of the people they are depending on to make that happen shares their skepticism.
“I can’t figure out how this is going to get done,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who represents Minnesota’s Seventh District and serves as ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee.
In June, Peterson led the fight to pass a new farm bill in the House, only to have it defeated by an odd coalition of those who wanted the bill to include no money for food stamps and those who wanted it to include $20 billion more.
In July, House Republicans eventually passed a farm bill that stripped out the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — as food stamps are known. No Democrats voted for the bill and 12 Republicans opposed it.
This week, House Republicans are expected to vote on a SNAP-only bill that cuts $40 billion from food stamps over the next 10 years. That’s 10 times more than the Senate cut in the farm bill it passed in 2012 and 2013. President Obama has said he will veto any farm bill that comes to him without a SNAP component.
Two chambers far apart
Next week, the House is expected to name members to a conference committee to work out differences in the two versions of the farm bill. But the two chambers seem impossibly far apart with little desire to come closer together.
“There is an inability to want to compromise,” observed Harman Wilts, as he finished his run of Capitol Hill.
Wilts returned to his 900-acre farm in Kerkhoven expecting nothing more than a last-minute extension of the current farm bill.
Peterson says even that may not be possible. He says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told him the president will veto an extension of the current farm bill because the current law does not fund several programs the White House considers critical.
Vilsack has said he has “very, very strong objections to an extension.”
All of it leaves farmers in rural Minnesota questioning the commitment level of their representatives in Washington.
On Sept. 10, Stacy Ripka met with a congressional aide who told her, “We only have six working days left in September.”
“I thought, ‘On the farm, we work seven days a week when we have to get the job done,’ ” Ripka said.