When writing about the current policy outlook for agriculture, the natural focus is to reflect on the prospects for the farm bill—either in the current lame duck session of Congress or when the new Congress convenes in 2013. Last week’s Farm Foundation® Forum addressed the fate of the farm bill in a post-election analysis, but it also put it in context of the larger policy debate and arena. [An archived webcast of the Farm Foundation® Forum is available for viewing.]
For the general public, the lame duck session of Congress is all about the fiscal cliff—the dual challenge of expiring tax legislation and pending budget sequestration. Presumably, something must and will be done to address these issues, if even just an extension to push off the deadline for a time.
For agricultural interests, the now-expired farm bill is also on the list of lame duck session priorities. Here, too, something must be done by the end of the year, if even just a temporary extension. If nothing is done, we will get to learn how to implement the permanent legislation from 1938 and 1949. With almost everyone acknowledging that option as not feasible, the presumption is we will at least pass an extension that continues to suspend the permanent legislation. However, as Craig Jagger reminded participants in the Nov. 14 Forum, some programs that have expired need to be reauthorized soon or their funding lines will be zeroed out of the next budget baseline from the Congressional Budget Office, making it even more difficult to fund and reauthorize the programs.
While the legislative agenda for Congress and agriculture looks busy, agricultural producers and groups also need to expand their focus to the executive and judicial branches of the federal government. As was evident from the discussions at the Forum, there are agriculture and food issues on the agenda in all three branches of government. Several Forum speakers highlighted food safety and environmental issues that may see regulatory action in coming months. Review and lawsuits over implementation of regulations could keep the court docket busy, as well.
At the Forum, Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College, highlighted a new arena for agricultural policy development, namely the social arena. In addition to electing candidates to office, voters in the Nov. 6 elections decided major referendums. Of specific interest: the defeat in California of a proposal to mandate labeling of genetically-modified foods, and approval in North Dakota of a state constitutional amendment reinforcing the role of modern animal agriculture production practices.
For some issues, however, a public vote may not be enough to settle the debate. Many food policy issues including genetically-modified production, animal welfare and environmental stewardship have moved from the ballot box to the boardroom, with interest groups pushing agendas through campaigns aimed at corporations in the food system. Corporate initiatives to change production and sourcing practices or to adopt new stewardship requirements for providers are examples of policy decisions that will affect agriculture—even if a public vote never occurs.
In general terms, the 2012 election has largely been called status quo, given no changes in control of Congress or the White House. Status quo might suggest no major changes ahead, but with the range of policy issues on the radar for agriculture, it is hard to imagine a status quo kind of year ahead.