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Mapping the Fate of the Farm Bill

December 11, 2013
farm bill now

By Todd Kuethe and Jonathan Coppess, University of Illinois/farmdocdaily

The current effort to pass a farm bill has been exceedingly difficult and successful completion remains in doubt. Here, we examine various dynamics surrounding a farm bill and what has made the current effort so difficult.


Today's farm bill is the direct descendant of the twin disasters of the 1930's: the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Over time the underpinnings of farm policy have shifted from direct price support with production controls toward more market-oriented programs. The farm bill has also expanded to include, among others, conservation programs and both international and domestic food assistance programs.

Writing and passing omnibus legislation with the scope of a farm bill has historically been a coalition building exercise - pulling together enough votes not only to pass the bill through both chambers of Congress but also to fend off problematic amendments and opposition. For the 40 years dating to the 1973 Farm Bill (Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973), this has been accomplished by adding non-rural votes that support food assistance programs to the agricultural votes that focus on the design of commodity assistance programs. Most of the farm bills during that time passed with bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate.

Among modern farm bill debates, the current one has exceeded past efforts in degrees of difficulty. In 2012, it passed the Senate but was never considered on the House floor. The 2013 iteration passed the Senate but was initially defeated on the House floor before the food assistance programs in Title IV (including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) formerly known as food stamps) of the bill were removed. The remaining provisions were subsequently passed by the House on a straight party-line vote, meaning only Republicans voted for the bill and all Democrats opposed it. Reductions to the food assistance provisions were passed separately and also on a party-line vote before being recombined for purposes of conferencing with the Senate.

The current farm bill debate has consumed nearly three calendar years spanning two Congresses. Its tortured path and uncertain outcome raise difficult questions about the future for U.S. farm policy. Exploring why it has been so difficult to complete can help policy makers and the agricultural community understand not only this farm bill but also provide insights for future efforts. One way to begin is to look at the lay of the land.

Discussion: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

A suitable comparison to the current effort can be found in the 1996 Farm Bill, known as the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act (FAIR). FAIR was written under similar political circumstances such as intense budgetary scrutiny with efforts to reduce federal spending, hyper-partisan politics when a Democratically-controlled White House was at significant odds with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives - the make-up of which had substantially been altered by recent elections, strong commodity prices and farm income, and significant, substantive shifts in farm policy. FAIR also suffered extraordinary difficulties getting through Congress and to the President's desk, making it into law only with the help of the budget reconciliation process. By comparison, the 1996 Farm Bill initially passed the House with a bipartisan vote and the final version that came out of conference passed overwhelmingly.

The following are two maps of the Congressional districts of the contiguous United States by party affiliation (Red for Republican; Blue for Democrat) and include the USDA farm production regions. USDA defines ten Farm Production Regions for the lower 48 states. The regions provide rather simple and consistent groupings that are agriculturally and economically similar. The regions follow state boundaries, however, and sometimes group areas that are not alike, particularly in states with a diverse agricultural sector.

Figure 1 shows party affiliation for the 432 voting Congressional Districts in the 113th Congress of the lower 48 states by USDA Farm Production Region. The Republican Party, as the majority party in the House of Representatives, holds a simple majority (53.9%) of all of these districts (also referred to as seats). Most of the regions, however, indicate an even greater degree of party control. The Republican Party controls an overwhelming majority of the seats in the Northern Plains (100%), the Delta States (85.7%), Appalachia (72.1%), the Southern Plains (70.7%) and the Southeast (69.1%). The minority Democratic Party holds an overwhelming majority of the districts in the Pacific (70.6% Democrat) and the Northeast (69.8% Democrat). As shown in Figure 1, the 2013 Farm Bill was considered by a Congress with substantial differences in party alignment among the regions.


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