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Farm Bill update: Spectacularly Dysfunctional House of Representatives Edition!

If it feels as though we keep posting about the Farm Bill but never saying, “It’s now law,” it’s because the process has indeed been interminable and frustrating – without yielding an actual Farm Bill. Every five years or so, Congress usually takes several months to pass a Farm Bill. But this time, due to a spectacularly dysfunctional House of Representatives, it’s almost two years since Congress began working on it.

Last year the Senate passed a bill, but House leaders refused to bring it to the floor in an election year, given their intentions to make big cuts in food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And sure enough, disputes about food stamps were why the House defeated their version of the Farm Bill in June. Conservatives felt the bill spent too much on crop subsidies and food stamps. It still could have passed if it received support from Democrats, but they objected to the amount of food stamp cuts, drug testing and other new conditions on food stamp recipients. After their failure to pass a Farm Bill proved unpopular, on July 12 Republican House leaders rushed through a new Farm Bill after cutting out the nutrition programs entirely; no Democrats voted for it.

The House’s approach creates several problems. It will be difficult to negotiate differences with the Senate’s comprehensive Farm Bill since the two measures are so differently structured. Isolating the nutrition programs leaves them vulnerable to more extremist cuts and conditions. And the House bill’s changes to federal farm commodity programs would eliminate the incentive for Congress to pass periodic Farm Bills, which has been important to creating responsive agricultural policy change over time. The new bill also would enshrine subsidies without providing taxpayers ways to reform programs or cut subsidies — which is ironic for the self-styled budget-conscious House.

Speaking against passage, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., noted that “532 agriculture, conservation, rural development, finance, forestry, energy and crop insurance groups expressed their opposition to splitting the Farm Bill and urged House leaders to pass a five-year Farm Bill.”

However, bad as the House bill is, not passing a Farm Bill this year would be an even worse outcome. Farmers need clarity on the programs under which they are producing the nation’s agricultural products. Farm programs need reforming and updating. And several important programs — support for farmer innovation and profitability, farmers’ markets, beginning farmers, organic agriculture, sustainable agriculture, and more — were not included in last year’s short-term extension of the Farm Bill and need to be reauthorized.

It is important for Congress to move rapidly toward a House-Senate conference committee. Let’s hope that the pundits now predicting that House leaders plan to use the Farm Bill as leverage in the debt ceiling negotiations this fall are wrong. Failing to pass a responsible Farm Bill by the time the current Farm Bill extension expires at the end of September would be the height of irresponsibility and a disservice to the nation.