Farm Bill failure disappointing for Idaho ag groups

Sean Olson//June 21, 2013

Farm Bill failure disappointing for Idaho ag groups

Sean Olson//June 21, 2013

Idaho agriculture groups are frustrated at the House's failure to pass the federal farm bill. File photo.

Idaho agricultural groups are frustrated by further setbacks in the federal farm bill, a version of which has been rejected by the U.S. House of Representatives.

For two years farmers have been lobbying hard to make changes to the farm bill that would cut costs and provide the industry with a safety net.

Travis Jones, executive director of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, said there were tough decisions made by farmers across the country to ensure that the agricultural side of the bill was palatable for lawmakers who are dead set on budget cuts.

The Senate already has passed its version of the bill, and Idaho farmers said they had hoped the House would move forward with its version after it passed the House Agriculture Committee on a 36-10 vote. In a House floor vote June 20, it failed 195-234, with 62 Republicans and 172 Democrats voting against it.

“We’re all a little frustrated, because agriculture made a lot of compromises to get where we were” before the vote, Jones said.

The failure was due largely to the non-agricultural aspect of the farm bill, the food stamp program that makes up the majority of the bill’s spending, about $744 billion over 10 years in the House version and about $760 billion in the Senate version, according to a Congressional Research Service report comparing the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Some Republicans scoffed at the bill’s price tag, including U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who voted against it. His colleague, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, voted for the bill.

“If the bill would have been written in a more fiscally-responsible way, it would have earned enough Republican support to overcome the House Democrats who voted against it,” Labrador said in a statement June 21.

Simpson said in an email that he voted for the bill because it was vitally important to the state’s economy. Nationally, he said, the farm bill is too important economically and for national security to play hardball politics against it.

“Put simply,” Simpson wrote, “if we don’t want to become as reliant on foreign nations for our food as we are for our oil, then we need to understand and acknowledge the importance of the Farm Bill to our national and economic security.”

The bill can be taken up again at any time by the House. Congress must pass an extension or a new bill by Sept. 30, or it will expire and all farm bill subsidies to farmers will dry up.

Simpson said he is concerned that Congress will punt the farm bill debate to next year, passing another extension to the current bill that will not address any of the compromises or concerns farmers brought up this year and last. The farm bill is renewed every five years.

“I would like to hope that we can find a path forward to complete a new Farm Bill by the end of summer,” Simpson wrote, “but I am not overly optimistic.”

The House bill would have cost about $940 billion over 10 years, cutting about $33 billion from current spending levels, according to the CRS report. The Senate version would cost about $955 billion over 10 years, cutting $18 billion.

Both bills are relatively good for Idaho farmers, who appreciate provisions that cut direct payments to farmers in favor of beefing up crop insurance programs, Jones said. Crop insurance is a safety net for farmers that pays out when weather or other disasters hurt crop yield, pricing or quality, whereas direct payments are automatic spending that goes out regardless of a farm’s economic health.

Both bills also slightly increased research spending while saving cash by combining conservation programs.

The dairy industry was pleased with bill provisions that would have gotten rid of traditional price support programs to provide margin insurance for an industry that has struggled with rising feed costs and wavering milk prices. The insurance would kick in when overhead costs and the price of milk grew too close together in the open market. The bills would have required dairy farmers using the insurance to stop some parts of their production to stabilize prices if the market were too flooded with milk.

A House amendment removed the price stabilization piece of the bill, but left the margin insurance.

Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said the changes would have been a help for his members, who have not seen much government assistance because while feed prices have skyrocketed, milk prices have not caused price supports to kick in.

“The current dairy programs are no longer functional; they are antiquated, and it’s not in the dairies’ best interest to keep them in place,” he said.

Ongoing farm bill spending has already been cut by more than $6 billion from the sequester, the automatic cuts that Congress allowed to take place after failing to agree on a budget.

Clark Hamilton, Idaho Grain Producers Association president and Ririe farmer, said it has been impossible for farmers to plan any sort of mitigation for further cuts to the program because they don’t know what cuts will actually come.

“Not knowing is the worst part,” he said.


Updated June 24 with comments from Simpson.