Pass a fiscally responsible Farm Bill extension

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Far more important problems must be resolved during the waning days of this Congress. Unless lawmakers act, the imminent expiration of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and the Alternative Minimum Tax “patch” will hit hard at the family budgets of millions of Americans, and on Jan. 2 across-the-board cuts will lop more than $100 billion from both defense and non-defense spending. The indiscriminate cuts will come just as states devastated by Superstorm Sandy come looking for additional disaster relief and federal flood insurance must be expanded to cover claims.

The 112th Congress will need to accomplish more in its last two months than it has managed to do in two years. It had 22 months to pass a farm bill. The House never even debated one. Lawmakers should pass the baton to the 113th Congress and instead approve a responsible one-year farm bill extension that does not ignore the country’s fiscal crisis or the realities of a 21st century economy. This will allow the new Congress time to address important and unresolved agriculture policy issues in an open, transparent and fiscally responsible way.

To be responsible, this farm bill extension must follow the lead of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and immediately end the subsidies known as “direct payments.” This wasteful entitlement program sends $5 billion a year to mostly the largest, most profitable farm businesses, regardless of need. In addition, Congress should bring the costly crop insurance program in line with all other farm subsidy and social welfare programs by subjecting recipients to means-testing and placing limits on the total amounts individual farmers and ranchers can collect. Subsidies to profitable, often foreign-owned, crop insurance companies must end.  A number of other outdated, inefficient, or redundant initiatives should be cut back or eliminated as well, including the Market Access Program, the Foreign Market Development Program and the Small Watershed and Biomass Crop Assistance programs. These modest steps would provide more than enough money to extend funding for the truly useful dairy, conservation, and rural development programs that expired with the last farm bill.

What Congress must not do is to use the farm bill extension to create new entitlement programs for agriculture. Trading direct payments for new price supports, expanded crop insurance or open-ended “shallow loss” income guarantees would be a step backward. It is also vital to repeal the outdated Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agricultural Act of 1949. Agriculture interests cynically trot out the specter that these obsolete laws could come into force to leverage Congressional support for new subsidies. These laws have no relevance to modern agriculture and should be repealed.

America needs a dynamic and robust agricultural sector. These limited, well-defined measures constitute the framework for a fiscally responsible farm bill extension that can pass both the House and Senate without getting bogged down in controversy – and allow for a full and robust farm bill debate next year.

Ellis is vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense and Scott Faber is vice president of government affairs at Environmental Working Group.