The House of Representatives last week failed to pass a five-year farm bill, the companion legislation to a bill passed by the Senate earlier this year.
The main stumbling block last week, as was the case last year, was the cost of supplemental nutrition programs that account for 80 percent of the Department of Agriculture's budget.
As passed by the House Ag Committee, the bill reduced spending on these programs by $2 billion. Conservatives wanted deeper cuts, liberals wanted something closer to the $400 million in cuts passed by the Senate.
Even as conservatives grumbled, it appeared the votes to approve the bill had been lined up. But then Speaker John Boehner pushed through an amendment quashing a voluntary supply management program favored by many in the dairy industry. Without that provision, Democrats from Northeastern and Midwest dairy states had no reason to buck their party on the food stamp cuts.
It was a bipartisan defeat.
Farmers and ranchers who make their plans based on the certainty of the multiyear farm programs are back to where they were last year when the Senate passed a bill and the House leadership didn't bring one passed by its ag committee to the floor for a vote.
An extension of the 2008 bill passed in January expires at the end of September. Unless another extension is passed, or a new bill can be crafted that gets the required majority, U.S. farm policy will revert to laws passed in the 1930s and '40s.
Though we don't agree, we've been told by legislators and farm lobbyists that it's vital that food stamps and other nutrition programs remain under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture and part of the farm bill. They say the only way to get the farm programs rural, mostly Republican legislators want is to connect them with food stamps and other welfare programs urban, mostly Democrat legislators want.
Well, it seems there's no shortage of interest in the nutrition programs and the farm bill. In our opinion, that intense interest has been what's kept a bill from being passed since work began on the measure three years ago.
While we concede that there are other issues concerning the cost of farm programs that have also gummed up the works, these are small potatoes when compared to the more than $80 billion spent each year on nutrition programs.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., introduced an amendment to split the nutrition programs into a separate bill. Unfortunately, it failed to gain traction.
Too bad. It seems unlikely that the politics surrounding the food programs are going to change anytime soon.
It's been more than four score years since Congress started legislating agriculture to ease the "crisis" on the farm. In eight decades the crisis seems to have not passed, and the urgency with which the ag community waits for the passage of each bill intensifies.
We often wonder if these programs have outlived their usefulness. But that's an argument for another day. Because they are bound to continue in the near term, farmers and ranchers need to know what the rules are going to be before making decisions about their businesses.
Unless the food programs are split from the farm bill, they could have a long wait.