If your New Year’s Eve was as exciting as mine, you stayed up to watch the C-SPAN2 coverage of the Senate passing fiscal cliff legislation to address expiring tax policies. When the dust settled, the House of Representatives passed the package on New Year’s Day and the legislation was signed by the President on Jan. 2, just before a new Congress was set to convene.
Pushing off legislation to the last minute has become a hallmark of Congressional activity. The fiscal cliff debate was also presumably going to address the automatic budget sequestration pending on Jan. 2, which itself was triggered by the failure in late 2011 to put together a Super Committee plan for deficit reduction.
Instead, the fiscal cliff compromise didn’t resolve budget sequestration—it just pushed it off again for two months until March. The fiscal cliff legislation also averted at the last minute the similarly-named dairy cliff by reauthorizing federal farm policy through September 2013, thus avoiding the implementation of permanent legislation from 1949 that would have first affected dairy support programs and the much-noted retail price of milk.
So, Congress did act on the farm bill, but only at the last minute before the repercussions of not acting would have become too obvious.
Why did it take so long to get to the point of settling for just a one-year extension? The Senate and House agricultural committees began the farm bill debate back in 2010. They had a plan ready to go in late 2011 as part of the deficit-cutting plan before retrenching and producing farm bill legislation in regular order in 2012. Yet in neither case did the ag committees’ plans lead to a new farm bill.
Have the rules changed in DC? Is it no longer possible to garner the support to pass comprehensive farm bill legislation? To paraphrase the words of Secretary Vilsack, are agriculture and rural America at risk of becoming irrelevant to the policy discussion?
The failure to pass a farm bill lends support to the argument that agricultural policy is becoming an afterthought in Washington. But, I would suggest that there are so many things that have run into delays and deadlines due to the political gridlock of the past few months and years that the farm bill delay might be more another symptom than an issue unto itself. Everything is being done deadline to deadline. After all, Congress just this week had to add language to debt ceiling legislation to threaten itself with no pay if it doesn’t get a budget completed by April 15.
From recent reports, it also appears the farm bill delay was at least, in part, about principles and programs and not just inattention in Washington. From the beginning, the new farm bill was being written with the general acknowledgement that significant program cuts were on the way and, I believe, the realization that income support was giving way to risk management as the primary goal of farm policy.
The continuing battle over dairy policy seems to be at the crux of the issue, with a proposed margin safety net program that looks more like risk management, but a supply control element included that recalls the previous income support era. The inability to resolve this issue and the lack of significant spending legislation to which farm bill cuts could be attached, seems to be a more likely cause of the farm bill delay for the moment than any question of declining relevance.
Actually, the question of relevance could be reversed. Instead of agriculture proving its relevance, maybe it is up to Congress—and for that matter, agricultural policy stakeholders—to prove they are relevant to agriculture by getting a new farm bill complete and in place by the time the current extension expires in September.