Bill can be part of budget solution

Farmers and ranchers across the country might seem a world apart from lawmakers in Washington, but they share a common challenge: How do you stretch a limited supply of resources to meet an ever-growing demand?

For our nation’s agriculture producers, the question is about feeding a growing population with limited land and natural resources to cultivate a crop or raise a herd. In Washington, it’s about finding ways to be more efficient with taxpayer dollars, especially in the midst of a slow economic recovery.

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The last round of budget showdowns and the specter of a sequel just months away have spawned a renewed push in Congress to seek a long-term budget solution. And crisis-weary citizens are counting on Congress to end a theme of brinkmanship. But deep divisions still remain, and how the Congress will take on this task remains unclear. What’s clear is the consequences of inaction.

We are $17 trillion in debt, and we continue to run significant annual deficits. Social Security is expected to be insolvent by 2033. Medicare will be bankrupt in 2026. And the Social Security Disability Trust fund is predicted to be broke in 2016. Experts agree continuing down this road could have disastrous implications for our ability to grow our economy. So it is imperative that we take every opportunity to reverse this course.

One great prospect for immediate and meaningful savings is the farm bill, which is currently being negotiated in conference committee. This legislation is certainly not immune to the multitude of perspectives in Congress.

Disagreements exist on several fronts, but the final product is likely to save between $20 billion and $30 billion, regardless of who comes out on top in the policy debate.

But the farm bill is much more than a tool for budget hawks in Washington to achieve savings. Fresh agriculture policy has proven elusive for those who feed and fuel our world since the old policy expired last year. Recent droughts and freak blizzards underscore the need for replenished disaster assistance that expired in 2011.

Farmers and ranchers from my home state of Nebraska tell me they could live without costly annual direct payments to bolster their income, and they are happy to pay into a crop insurance program that provides a backstop in tough years. They are prepared to do their part to help reduce government spending so long as they have the risk management tools they need to succeed. Lawmakers must also be prepared to provide these tools while reducing government spending.

Eliminating direct payments and streamlining duplicative conservation programs are part of the agriculture titles that save about $13 billion in both chambers’ farm bills. While lawmakers might differ on how additional cost savings are achieved, the end product will reflect improved efficiency and a commitment to targeting government resources more narrowly to meet specific needs.

The food stamp program is the biggest sticking point in farm bill negotiations. The Senate bill saves $4 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or about one-half of a percent. The House bill saves about 10 times more. Admittedly, there’s a lot of pasture between those two figures. And both sides should be prepared to live with something in the middle.

As these negotiations move forward, we must acknowledge that we are working with a limited pot of resources, requiring a strong commitment to efficiency and priority. Nobody wants to block assistance from folks truly in need, and we should seek ways to protect limited resources for these families. One way to do this is to crack down on states that skirt eligibility requirements for SNAP recipients by enrolling folks in the program who don’t qualify for the benefit. Doing so would save roughly $20 billion and ensure limited resources are not being diluted by state programs that lure unqualified Americans into unneeded federal benefits.

The farm bill is not out of the woods yet, but it stands as a model for fiscally responsible governance. The bipartisan, multiregional, multifaceted House and Senate plans focus on how to save rather than how to spend. A new long-term farm bill would provide certainty for the rural sector that is so important for economic stability. It guarantees real savings while protecting vulnerable families. And it might be just the example Congress needs to inspire responsible solutions to the fiscal challenges facing our nation.

Johanns is the senior senator from Nebraska, serving since 2009. He sits on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; the Veterans’ Affairs; and the Appropriations committees. He is a former governor of Nebraska and was secretary of Agriculture under President George W. Bush.