The days are limited for Congress to enact a new farm bill before the Sept. 30 expiration of current programs.
For those paying attention, that Sept. 30 deadline was originally Sept. 30, 2012. Congress failed to complete its task last year, passing an extension in the early hours of Jan 1. 2013. And yet here we are again, on the brink of yet another expiration of the legislation that is critical to all Americans, families and family farmers alike.
Some in Washington are saying that yet another extension of the current farm bill is the only solution, given the time constraints of the congressional schedule. This is not acceptable. An extension is a cop-out. Both chambers of Congress have each passed a version of the farm bill, but now the House must move swiftly to appoint conferees and begin the formal conference process with the Senate.
An extension is misguided. Organizations calling for an extension at this time do not have the interests of family farmers, ranchers, fisherman and hungry Americans in mind.
A farm bill is crucial to our nation's food supply, rural communities, the overall health of the economy, and energy security. An extension represents a short sighted, temporary fix that ultimately provides inadequate solutions that will leave farmers, ranchers and disadvantaged families crippled by uncertainty. There is still time to pass a five-year, comprehensive bill this year, and any assertions to the contrary are disingenuous and unacceptable. Congress needs to step up to the plate and take care of its unfinished business.
An extension costs taxpayers. Extending current farm programs would mean continuing the costly direct payment program. Direct payments will cost $8 to $10 billion over the next two years. Farmers receiving payments, regardless of commodity prices, is an indefensible, outdated, and ineffective policy. A new five-year farm bill would end these payments and implement a safety net that provides support in the event of natural disasters or long-term market collapse, not when economic conditions are strong.
In addition, the United States is currently paying a $147 million annual settlement to Brazil as part of a long-running trade dispute over cotton programs. The United States agreed to pay the money to Brazil in 2010 in order to prevent retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods based on a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling against current cotton program payments to U.S. farmers. The pending House and Senate farm bills would bring the program into compliance with WTO rules, thereby eliminating the need for this unnecessary use of taxpayer funds. However, without a new farm bill, the United States has no choice but to keep paying the settlement or face costly consequences imposed by our competitors.
An extension leaves many underserved. Not only would an extension continue unjustifiable direct payments to farmers and foreign governments, but also it would leave important programs without funding due to their expired baselines.
An extension would once again eliminate dozens of important programs that support beginning farmers and ranchers, farmers markets, organic farmers and ranchers, farmers producing homegrown renewable energy on their farms, livestock producers facing natural disasters, and many others.
An extension does not solve problems. Congress is currently engaged in a philosophical debate about federal nutrition programs, namely, the farm bill's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Some members of Congress believe the program and its current level of benefits and eligibility requirements are appropriate, particularly in this challenging economic time. Others erroneously believe the program is fraught with waste, fraud and abuse and want to cut funding and benefits to vulnerable families.
Regardless of where one falls on this issue, it is clear that an extension of the current farm bill is inadequate from both perspectives. Members wanting to preserve existing funding for this vital safety net program should welcome the long-term policy certainty provided by a five-year comprehensive bill, rather than leaving SNAP vulnerable to cuts year after year. And members interested in cutting funding from SNAP won't achieve any of the so-called reforms they desire without the passage of a new five-year bill; an extension merely perpetuates the status quo.
Rather than waste time on a nutrition-only bill to be brought up in the House next week that would leave between 4 and 6 million Americans ineligible for full SNAP benefits, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, or pass an extension that merely kicks the can down the road, Congress must instead preserve the historic coalition between farmers and consumers in need and pass a comprehensive five-year farm bill that includes both farm and nutrition programs.
Johnson is the 14th President of the National Farmers Union. Prior to his post at NFU, Johnson held the position of Agriculture Commissioner in North Dakota for 12 years. His family farm is in Turtle Lake, N.D.