Leaders of the Senate Ag Committee hope to finish work on the next farm bill this spring, though many observers give long odds that a bill will be passed and signed this year.
There is general agreement, more or less, that farm programs will be cut in line with legislation passed last year to increase the national debt ceiling. While there is ongoing debate over how conservation programs, commodity subsidies and crop insurance will be structured, the biggest challenge to crafting and passing the bill has nothing to do with farm programs. The issue, at least to many Republicans in the House, is the cost of the nutrition programs that make up the bulk of the USDA's budget.
USDA's budget is $146 billion. The nutrition programs -- food stamps, school lunches, Women, Infants and Children -- total $102.2 billion, or 70 percent of the department's budget.
Our purpose here isn't to weigh in on the debate over whether the food programs should be cut, though we agree all entitlement programs should be in play when it comes to deficit reduction. Instead we question whether these programs, which are by definition welfare programs, should be administered by the Department of Agriculture.
In our simple worldview, the growing and marketing of food is separate from the business of buying and eating food. Welfare programs have little in common with animal health, crop research, soil conservation, commodity stabilization and other services related to the production of food and fiber.
We wonder if farmers and ranchers would benefit if their interests weren't tied to the political fortunes of the nutrition programs.
The chances of ever finding out are scant. Ag committee members in either chamber wouldn't give up $102 billion in budget authority without a considerable battle. It's that budget authority that gives farm state lawmakers some leverage with their urban counterparts, and gives the nonrural legislators whose numbers are growing in Congress an entry point into agricultural policy.
When it comes down to it, the retention of power will always trump efficiency. Still, we can dream.