Political dynamics create hurdles to passage of Federal Farm Bill
In early 2012, Steve Etka was fairly optimistic that the U.S. Congress would pass a new Federal Farm Bill before the current one expired on Sept. 30.
Etka, who is legislative coordinator of the Midwest Dairy Coalition, an alliance of dairy cooperatives based in the Upper Midwest that collectively represents nearly 11,000 dairy, was the keynote speaker at the recent FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative's inaugural meeting at the Holiday Inn Convention Center.
Speaking to the co-op's delegates from throughout the Midwest, Etka said he was encouraged by the desire of members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committee to craft a far-reaching package of dairy reforms to help the dairy sector better weather economic storms of the future, and to temper some of those storms.
"We particularly appreciated the work of Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) in spearheading that effort in the House and for the work of Congressmen Reid Ribble (R-WI) and Tim Walz (D-MN) in advocating for the needs of Upper Midwest dairy farmers throughout this process," he related.
COMMITTEES PASS BILLS
After holding hearings in 2011 and early 2012, the Senate Agriculture Committee passed its version of the five-year Farm Bill in April. "It passed the full senate in June after a long, arduous process that took several days and included voting on 90 different amendments on the floor," Etka reported.
Starting in June 2011, the House Agriculture Committee held more than 20 Farm Bill hearings, according to Etka.
"That committee wrote its final version of the bill after spending more than 10 hours during a single day considering amendments, and passed it in July," he noted. "That bill cut $36 billion over 10 years by eliminating some direct payments to farmers; it was one of the only things moving through Congress that actually cut programs and spending."
Despite efforts by members of the House Agriculture Committee, the bill was never brought to the floor for a vote by the full House. "Other than a small group of ag focused House members, there were very few others pushing to bring it to the floor," Etka remarked.
He added, "As a result, the 2008 Farm Bill expired and Congress went home to campaign, and it was not until Jan. 1, 2013, in the last few hours of that Congress that they finally decided to pass a very inadequate one-year extension."
In the House of Representatives the challenge is creating the momentum to pass a Farm Bill, Etka noted. "Unlike the U.S. Senate, where there are two senators for every state no matter what its population," he remarked, "but in the House it's all about population.
"In the House you can't just appeal to rural members and hope to pass a Farm Bill; you need to have a message that's much broader," Etka asserted. More than half the current districts are 86 percent or more urbanized. Of those, 155 districts are 95 percent urbanized. Only 34 districts are more than 50 percent rural. The average Congressional district has about 700,000 people.
"If the strategy was to convince the House leaders that they should bring the Farm Bill to the floor because farmers in rural communities really wanted it, you'd be lucky to get 100 votes, while 218 votes are needed to pass a bill," he explained.
He said that election-year politics also played a role in failing to get the Farm Bill to the House floor.
"Members are very squeamish about taking votes that can be criticized by opponents in campaign ads. The drive to grandstand and make political points is also exaggerated during an election year, which makes it even more difficult to forge the compromises needed to gat a bill passed."
FOOD STAMPS LINK
TO FARM BILL
Since the heyday of FDR's New Deal in 1933, the federal government has been helping farmers, subsidizing those who agree to grow certain crops and helping to cover losses during bad years.
However, Etka pointed out that recent Farm Bills have not been primarily about farm programs and conservation.
In the 2008 Farm Bill the bulk of its $96.2 billion cost went elsewhere. Just $13.44 billion went to programs for farmers, while $77.6 billion went to the food stamp program known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.)
SNAP was incorporated into the Farm Bill to help draw a connection between producers and consumers and to get broader support for the package, Etka noted.
This program has expanded by 11,133 people per day between January of 2009 and October of 2012. At the start of 2009, recipients of food stamps stood at 31,939,110; by the end of 2012 the tally numbered more than 47.5 million.
The Congressional Budget office reports that SNAP enrollment increased 70 percent during that period, with the food stamp budget growing by $2.7 billion over fiscal year 2011.
According to Etka, the long-term strategy of linking the Food Stamp program with the Farm Bill has broken down because many members of Congress are focused on reversing this growing trend and attempting to reduce the number of people receiving food stamps.
"Under the arcane budget rules in Congress, Food Stamp funding continues even if there's no Farm Bill," he explained. "So members representing urban districts are better off not having a Farm Bill come to the House floor. For those representing suburban districts with little Food Stamp spending and no farm programs, the Farm Bill is a consumer and taxpayer issue."
Etka emphasized that for the past decade the Midwest Dairy Coalition has recognized the need to form alliances with producer groups and legislators from other regions of the U.S.
"We've learned that we can't get things done by ourselves," he said. "The Midwestern folks, plus the northeastern folks give us the majority of votes in the Senate Ag Committee. That's part of the reason the Senate seems to be a better place for us on dairy policy."
All the members on the House Agriculture Committee from the Midwest and Northeast still don't add up to a majority. "It's a committee that tends to be weighted more heavily with representatives from Western and Southeastern states," Etka said. "If not for the leadership of Collin Peterson of Minnesota, we'd have a very tough time there."
FUTURE FARM BILL PROSPECTS
Because Congress is facing several large budget deadlines, Etka said it's going to be difficult to get members to focus on a new Farm Bill this spring.
"They might start looking at a new bill in June," he suggested. "Once they get started, I think we'll see the Senate act first. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has re-introduced the Farm Bill that passed the Senate last year as an early bill, which means it's a priority for him in the coming year."
He said rank-and-file members of the House don't really recognize the urgency to pass a new Farm Bill. "They're not willing to pressure the leadership to get it done."
Requesting the assistance of FarmFirst members, Etka said, "That's where all of you come in. If you think it's time for a new five-year Farm Bill, if you think it's time for some dairy policy reforms, if you think it's time for some certainty in terms of how dairy policies are going to affect your businesses, you really need to be saying that very loudly to your members of Congress, particularly in the House.