Congressional action to avert the fiscal cliff was described again and again as “kicking the can down the road.”
When it came to extending the farm bill, even that cliché was too complimentary.
“These stop-gap efforts don’t even qualify as kicking the can down the road,” said Jerry Kosak, president of the National Milk Producers Federation.
And milk producers were among the so-called beneficiaries of the legislation approved in the waning hours of the last session of Congress.
Despite all the weeks invested in drafting a proposed farm bill, in the end Congress voted only on a bare-bones piece of legislation put together behind closed doors by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The agreement extended direct farm payments and other major elements of the previous farm bill, including provisions to prevent the price of milk from doubling.
The proposed farm bills approved by the Senate and House Agriculture Committee, in contrast, called for elimination of the highly criticized direct payments to farmers.
“The message is clear -- despite high market prices, virtually unlimited commodity and crop insurance premium subsidies to mega farms remain uncapped, but beginning farmers and rural communities are left twisting in the wind, and conservation of our precious land and water gets put on hold,” said Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs.
The farm bill did extend the important Conservation Reserve Program, but other programs, such as the proposed “sodbuster” were ignored. “Congress is allowing thousands more grassland acres to be converted for short term gain, destroying habitat for grassland birds and other wildlife,” said Julie Sibbing of the National Wildlife Federation.
With a new session of Congress beginning with newly elected members, most observers assume that efforts to write a farm bill will restart. There won’t be much enthusiasm. Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, threatened to stop working with the administration. “I’m done with them for the next four years. They are on their own,” Peterson told Politico.
The lack of urgency to pass a farm bill was a sign to many of the diminished clout that agriculture has in Washington.
“There is absolutely no way to explain this other than agriculture is just not a priority,” said Senate Agriculture Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. The Obama administration this year did not even present Congress with a proposed farm bill, although it did propose a list of cuts in farm programs.
“I can see it coming, limping along, limping along, extension after extension, just like we seem to see happening everywhere here,” Stabenow said. The Obama administration “has this blind spot -- passing a farm bill is something they’ve never really been interested in,” Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told Mother Jones magazine.
In short, the future of federal policy on agriculture is more uncertain than it has been for generations. The dysfunction that plagues Washington has claimed another victim.