Policy Journal: The Biggest Challenge for the 2012 Farm Bill

December 8, 2010 03:45 AM

Budget issues continue to impact the debate on the 2012 farm bill as much as any hearing or policy push by farm and commodity organizations. In the wake of the November elections, the focus on the budget is expected to increase, not diminish.

As a congressman for 18 years and a former chairman of the House Ag Committee, former Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas) remains an active voice for agriculture. He bristles at the suggestion by some to cut U.S. farm subsidies as a way to help turn the tide of budget red ink.

“We know we have a debt problem, but we also don’t want increased taxes or cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense, homeland security or veterans, which, along with the interest paid on our debt, amounts to about 86% of the budget,” Combest says. Putting it
another way, he asks, “If only 14% of your take-home pay is disposable income and you have a $100,000 Visa bill to pay off, could you pull it off by skimping on the little things, or will you take a look at the jumbo mortgage on a huge house, the luxury SUV and your other fixed costs that leave you cash-strapped at the end of each month? This is the single biggest challenge we face heading into the 2012 farm bill debate.”

Not the answer. Farm programs have been in the budget crosshair before—three times in the past six years, Combest says. “It is perhaps the only policy in Washington that has come in under budget and actually shrunk in size. Farm programs constitute less than a quarter of 1% of the budget and not quite 16% of the USDA budget,” he points out. “But further weakening the farm safety net is not the political freebie that some people may be tempted to think it is.”

The cuts in the past, Combest argues, have left a farm safety net that “is not equipped to deal with an economic crisis in farm country if one comes along. Despite the efforts of congressional champions, it has been cut till it’s threadbare. As is the case with the current economic and fiscal mess we are in, it may be that no amount of explaining will ever cause us to fix the problem until a crisis forces the matter.”

As we move forward, Combest predicts, there’s a way around more cuts to farm programs. He believes that “with the help of strong friends in Congress on both sides of the aisle, with our education efforts and with a politically divided Washington, the farm safety net might actually catch a break from the string of devastating cuts it has been dealt.” Only time will tell if Combest is proven right. But he makes a commonsense argument as to why cutting farm subsidies won’t reap the budget benefits so many are touting.

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