Last week’s farm bill defeat in the U.S. House sparked doomsday predictions for immigration reform legislation and Ohio Republican John Boehner’s future as speaker. He’s under fire again because of his inability to corral party votes from staunch fiscal conservatives, such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who voted against the bill.

Counting casualties, whether policies or politicians, is a well-honed Washington sport. But it’s a sideshow overshadowing the big-picture ramifications of the farm bill’s fallout. Analysts should be talking about the adverse impact of unstable agricultural policies on American exports, rural development, conservation and other matters.

The U.S. food supply is crucial to national security, economic stability and growth — as well as to Americans’ quality of life. Minnesota reached a record $6.8 billion in agricultural exports last year. A strong farm bill is integral to the strategic arsenal needed to combat 21st-­century food safety threats such as bioterrorism, climate change and water contamination, which are more global and ominous than ever before.

The farm bill isn’t meant to address all of these issues directly, but the policies dictated are critical to agricultural sustainability. As the world’s population continues to soar, control of the food supply becomes a more powerful political and economic force. Corporate giants and wealthy governments increasingly control food production, and they’re buying up rights to agricultural lands in developing countries. U.S. lawmakers should be aggressively safeguarding the nation’s agricultural interests instead of fumbling over a farm bill.

Earlier this month, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to the National Press Club about environmental threats to the food supply caused by extreme weather patterns “different from anything we’ve ever tackled.” President Obama is expected to announce new climate change initiatives today.

Congress usually adopts a new farm bill every five years, and the legislation covers a range of policy issues. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill last year, but the House version died without being put to a vote. The Senate passed a $955 billion bill this year that included $3.9 billion in cuts over 10 years to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The House’s $939 billion bill called for $20.5 billion in SNAP cuts over 10 years.

The House bill appeared poised to pass last Thursday until two repugnant GOP amendments targeting SNAP recipients sent all but 24 Democrats running. One amendment would have allowed states to drug-test recipients, while the other established work requirements to receive aid. The amendments overreached, but Boehner was at a loss to stop them. In addition, the failure of a proposal to stabilize milk prices deepened the rifts.

The 234-193 House defeat included 62 “nay” votes, from Bachmann and other GOP fiscal conservatives who wanted deeper SNAP cuts. GOP Reps. Erik Paulsen and John Kline were among the bill’s Minnesota supporters, along with Democrats Tim Walz and Collin Peterson, members of the House Agriculture Committee.

U.S. agricultural policy is at a critical juncture, but House lawmakers couldn’t find their way out of the weeds to move the country forward. The House and Senate bills were imperfect, but that’s to be expected. The bills rightly eliminated $5 billion in annual subsidies to farmers and landowners whether or not they planted crops, but then needlessly channeled more money into a crop insurance program.

The options now are limited and may mean extending the existing farm bill for a second year. Such a shortsighted, piecemeal approach to agriculture policy undermines national interests. That point appears lost on the fiscal hard-liners who tanked the bill because their bottom line on public policy strictly comes down to dollars and cents rather sound agricultural strategy and common sense.


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