Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013 12:00 PM
The stripped down, nine-month extension of the 2008 Farm Bill passed last week by Congress shares all the aromatic qualities of a cow pie but has none of its practical utility.
It is the inept work product of an institution that is better at causing problems than solving them.
Commodity groups say that at a time of high crop prices it continues the direct subsidy payments that have drawn the ire of taxpayers and budget hawks. Dairymen complain it contains none of the policy reforms they need to remain viable. Specialty crop producers say it doesn't provide any funding for the market promotion and research programs it authorizes.
Even members of Congress -- some who voted for the thing -- hate it.
Considered among the few truly bipartisan measures passed by Congress, farm bills actually have a sketchy record of passing on schedule. The 2008 Farm Bill, for example, was supposed to be the 2007 Farm Bill but was not passed until the spring of the next year.
Mindful that the 2008 measure was set to expire six weeks before what everyone assumed would be a contentious presidential election, the leaders of both the House and Senate ag committees pledged in 2010 to get an early start and have the bill wrapped up before the presidential primaries.
Good intentions pave the road to hell, and the work on a replacement bill quickly turned down that tortured route. Efforts to replace crop subsidy payments with a risk management scheme were opposed by cotton and peanut interests. A dairy reform plan was opposed by processors.
Eventually, all that was worked out -- not perfectly, but in a series of compromises that satisfied stakeholders.
Things got complicated in 2011 when the United States reached its borrowing limit and Congress and the president failed to reach a "grand bargain" to reduce the deficit. Instead, Congress raised the debt limit and set up a "supercommittee" to propose targeted cuts to meet desired spending limits. The ag committees in both houses wrote bills behind closed doors that met the spending targets.
Time passed, the primaries came, candidates were chosen, and debate continued. And while the Senate eventually passed its version of a replacement farm bill, the House version never came to a floor vote -- largely because of spending on nutrition programs.
The 2008 measure expired in September, but Congress only last week passed the extension to avoid consumer dairy prices spiking under a support program mandated by "permanent" legislation that controls policy in the absence of a farm bill.
All the work of the past two years is undone, all the issues are back on the table. Old battles will be refought and new intrigues will be hatched. This being Congress, there's no guarantee what it produces, if it produces anything, will satisfy anyone.
We fear the stench of the extension will attach itself to whatever replaces it, leaving farmers and ranchers to endure its lingering essence for years to come.