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Congress, voters share blame

Published on December 28, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on January 25, 2013 9:30AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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It's more the rule than the exception that Congress fails to pass a new multiyear farm bill before the old one expires.

The 2008 Farm Bill, which was supposed to be the 2007 Farm Bill but wasn't passed in time, expired in September and a replacement has yet to be passed. The prospects that one will be passed before next year appear slim.

Congress owes it to farmers and ranchers to lay down its plan in a timely manner. Farmers and their lenders need to know the rules before making plans and lending money for next year's crop. Instead, they face the possibility of farm policy reverting to antiquated "permanent" legislation that contains commodity programs irrelevant to modern agriculture.

It's a mess that could easily have been avoided had legislators concentrated more on the people's business and less on scoring rhetorical points and conducting law making by brinkmanship.

Congress did itself no favor setting the last bill to expire in a presidential election year when frenzied partisanship makes the necessary compromise difficult to reach.

There was considerable wrangling over the particulars of how to replace expensive commodity subsidy programs with a risk-management system which would protect farmers from losses without paying them for just planting a crop, and debate on how to reform dairy policy.

Still, the Senate passed its version of a five-year bill last summer, as did the House ag committee.

Republican House leaders have held up the bill in a dispute over how much should be spent on USDA nutrition programs.

Seventy-four percent of USDA's $145 billion budget goes to school lunches, supplemental nutrition assistance (food stamps) and WIC. The GOP wants to tighten eligibility requirements for food assistance and reduce costs to a greater degree than House Democrats, and greater still than provided by the bill passed by the Senate.

To complicate matters, leaders have been loathe to proffer an extension of the 2008 legislation out of fear it would lead their colleagues to postpone action indefinitely. As if they need an excuse.

So now the farm bill is bound up in the negotiations over the automatic spending cuts and tax hikes that are the "fiscal cliff."

As in the farm bill and the fiscal cliff, Congress too often resorts to creating its own crisis in an attempt to extort itself to act on important issues. It holds a squirt gun to its head and threatens to make a mess if it doesn't act.

Congress should do better. Pollsters at Gallup say only 18 percent of Americans approve of its job performance. Yet we returned 90 percent of incumbents to office in the most recent election.

We are the real authors of this chaos.


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