Dan Murphy: The Farm Bill Failure

June 1, 2018 10:39 AM
Passage of a new farm bill fell short in the House — not from opposition to farm supports, but due to congressional dysfunction, compounded by the too-heavy structure of agriculture itself.

For decades, the farm bill was the poster boy for the value of political compromise.

By combining the interests of rural lawmakers with the priorities of urban legislators, a farm bill managed to be cobbled together every five years, despite the conflicting interests of the opposing congressional caucuses. Rural lawmakers want a farm-country safety net to prevent volatile commodity prices from bankrupting debt-laden farmers; urban legislators want to provide food and nutrition assistance to needy residents of America’s cities

However, as has more recently occurred with other broad spending bills, partisans have used the lawmaking process not only to tack on often irrelevant provisions (the poison pill approach) but to adopt a “take no prisoners” approach that allows zero flexibility to deviate from rigid ideological positions.

As pundits have long noted, a good compromise leaves both sides dissatisfied, as neither gets everything they desired. Now, it seems that everyone ends up angry because no one gets anything accomplished.

As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorialized, the failure of the House to pass the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 is an indication of “a Congress so polarized as to be ineffective. Even when their party wants policy changes, and controls Congress and the presidency, Republicans are so set against compromise that they forgo the ability to enact their agenda.”

Such intransigence, when imposed on farm policy, represents a serious threat to our national food security.

A Non-Issue for Voters
But let’s be honest: Most Americans don’t identify agriculture as a national priority. We take our abundant and relatively affordable food supply totally for granted, and the problems that producers and farmers face each growing season take place far away from public concerns, both geographically and politically.

Yet as Jimmie Musick, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, noted in a statement this week, “Between low commodity prices, a suffering ag economy [and] extreme weather conditions … Congress needs to enact a Farm Bill to give farmers long-term certainty that a safety net will be available through these uncertain and difficult economic conditions.”

I wonder: If you surveyed 100 people on the street, how many would agree that farmers face “difficult economic conditions?” The majority, I’m afraid, would agree with a Bloomberg story from 2013 (when the previous farm bill was under consideration) headlined, “Taxpayers turn U.S. farmers into fat cats with subsidies.”

There’s that “s” word taxpayers hate — except, of course, if those subsidies are doled out to corporations in their locality that employ them, their friends or family members in relatively well-paid jobs.

But there is truth in the facts underlying Bloomberg’s conclusion. A 2016 report from USDA’s Economic Research Service noted that in the nearly 25 years from 1991 to 2015 “farms … with gross cash farm income before expenses of $1 million or more (in inflation-adjusted 2015 dollars) increased their share of agricultural production from 23% to 41%.”

Along with the manufacturing, financial and service sectors of the economy, farming’s gotten far more consolidated; thus, bigger farms with larger incomes are getting more of the farm bill benefits because they’re the ones growing the crops the subsidies are targeting. In 2015, half of all farm bill benefits were paid to households with incomes exceeding $146,126, according to USDA data.

Call them a “safety net” or a “risk management tool,” too many consumers view the billions paid to American farmers as a tax-funded giveaway. They don’t understand that the problem isn’t necessarily the amount of money allocated for commodity price supports and the like, it’s the top-heavy consolidation that causes the skewed data USDA reported as to where the farm bill payments are directed.

If there were greater diversity in farm country, both in the numbers and the size of working farms, as well as in the crops being cultivated and the livestock being raised, the description of farm subsidies as a safety net would sound a lot more plausible to a lot more Americans.

But it’s a toss-up whether the challenge of revamping the structure and levels of participation in farming and ranching is the bigger challenge, or whether the partisan divide in Congress that scuttled a decades-long consensus merging the priorities of urban and rural lawmakers is the greater hurdle.

Hate to end yet another commentary on a downbeat, but absent an outpouring from voters to dislodge the congressional stalemate, prospects for an agreeable, bipartisan compromise on a new farm bill seem remote — and we haven’t even mentioned the onerous work requirements certain conservatives want to shoehorn into reauthorization of the SNAP program.

As the Star-Tribune argued in its editorial, “The nation’s founders never intended for [lawmaking] to be a winner-take-all system. Checks and balances are designed to foster a balance of power and drive competing interests to find common ground. It’s a value that those who venerate the Constitution should relearn.”

Yeah — good luck with that.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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