Editorial: Fight over Farm Bill shows flaws of Congress

Spokesman Review - Editorial Staff

If it grows, it probably grows in Washington, so the Farm Bill is probably as important a piece of economic legislation as Congress might take up.

Last year, members picked it, but dropped it, as they did so much else heading into the November election. But the Farm Bill is back, with at least an even chance of passing if food stamp funding does not again break down the legislative process.

This is a bill the Congress needs to finish soon. The old bill, already extended one year, will expire Sept. 30. Farm bills have a five-year life, and farmers must be able to plan beyond the next harvest. An industry worth more than $40 billion in Washington, and employing about 160,000, is just as fine-tuned in its way as a Boeing production line.

The bill has already reached the Senate floor, where members are winnowing through more than 100 amendments. This is Sausage-Making 101.

Among the positives are: The elimination of direct payments to farmers after three successive years of record incomes; and a cap on the amount of crop insurance premium the government will pay to the nation’s 20,000 wealthiest farmers, many of whom live in New York City. But the sugar industry held on to its price supports, which keep U.S. prices substantially above the global price, and states would not be allowed to label genetically modified food, as Washington Initiative 522 would do.

On an almost micro-level in the $955 billion bill is $25 million for added support for research into the health and nutritional benefits of pulse crops such as chickpeas and lentils, and $10 million for inclusion of pulse beans and flour in school lunches. The programs, authored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, would be good for farmers, Washington State University and kids.

Wheat growers have benefitted from similar programs.

The House version of the bill includes less specific assistance, but enough that those provisions can be negotiated when the two chambers complete their work. If they complete their work. The House measure is out of committee, but not on the floor.

The Senate and House are not close on food stamps, which represent the bulk of Farm Bill spending. The Senate cuts $400 million per year; the House, $2 billion. That’s one-half percent compared with about 3 percent out of $80 billion per year spent on stamps. One in seven Americans get food aid under what is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The difference was enough to stall the bill last year. That cannot be allowed to happen this year.

The Senate bill, with a five-year cost of $955 billion, saves $23 billion compared to the existing bill. The House measure saves $39.7 billion. In a better world, assistance for farmers and assistance for the poor would not be wrapped in the same bill, but this is how rural and urban lawmakers go about protecting their constituencies: Everybody wins, or everybody loses.

In the best of worlds, governments would not engage in costly global farm protectionism.