Here’s another farm bill option: nothing

Our View

It looks unlikely that Congress will pass a new farm bill before 2014.

House and Senate conferees are negotiating a replacement for the 2008 Farm Bill, which expired last year. It was extended, but expired again Sept. 30.

Differences remain. The House has passed another extension to give negotiators more time, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it won’t get a vote.

Once upon a time we were promised the new bill would be passed and signed well ahead of primaries leading up to last year’s presidential election. Nearly two years later there’s still no bill.

Color us gobsmacked because we’ve been told for months that a deal was virtually assured because lawmakers over the years have employed two sure-fire gimmicks to ensure a farm bill’s passage.

First, decades ago Congress decided to put food stamp and school lunch funding into the farm bill. The thinking goes that urban legislators don’t really care much for crop subsidies and dairy pricing, but the nutrition programs impact their constituents.

At $100 billion or so a year, these programs account for 80 percent of the spending in what’s laughably called the farm bill.

Many in and out of agriculture say without the nutrition title the farm bill would languish. But languish it has since the last bill expired, mostly while conservatives and liberals have fiercely debated whether $100 billion is too much or too little.

But not to worry. Congress arranged to put a gun to its own head by mandating that farm policy revert to “permanent” law written in the ’30s and ’40s should it fail to enact a measure to replace the expiring five-year farm bill.

The permanent laws are so antiquated they have little relevance to modern agriculture. Trying to apply them in the 21st Century would create consequences too dire for Congress to ignore its duty.

Not dire enough, it seems. The specter of production quotas, expensive price supports and $7-a-gallon milk has failed to force Congress to give in to its own extortion.

So neither of these hallowed mechanisms seem to have been moving the legislation along.

We’re not fans of tying food stamps to the farm bill, or the permanent law gambit. Because Congress has resisted our calls to dump them, we offer another alternative sure to force Congress to act

Rather than allowing farm policy to revert to the permanent law, statutes should be changed so that once a farm bill expires policy reverts to no law at all.

There’s nothing that scares everyone in Washington more than the thought of allowing agriculture — or anything else for that matter — to go unlegislated.

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