Editorial

Before the month is out both the House and Senate ag committees will begin markup sessions for the 2013 Farm Bill. Both promise, at least at the start, to look a lot like their ill-fated attempts to write and pass a bill last year.

And that may well be the problem.

Opponents of various provisions in both chambers will mount new campaigns and hatch new intrigues to reshape the bills.

In 2011 House and Senate ag leaders promised to get to work early to write a new four-year farm bill before the measure passed in 2008 expired and 2012 electioneering got underway. Nice idea, but it didn't work out that way.

Late in 2011 the committees' work came to a halt when the country hit the debt limit. The legislation raising the debt limit required Congress to come up with $1.5 trillion in savings over 10 years or face automatic, nearly across-the-board cuts.

The leaders of the House and Senate ag committees offered up $23 billion in savings over 10 years in exchange for the opportunity to write a farm bill that would have been included in the final legislative proposal. But the larger deal fell through, and the committees returned to their work with the goal to create proposals that met the spending cuts mandated in the 2011 Budget Control Act.

The Senate bill moved out of committee and was passed by the full chamber last summer. The House bill, passed by the ag committee, never got a floor vote. An extension of the 2008 Farm Bill expires Sept. 30.

Both bills eliminated direct commodity payments to grain farmers, replacing those subsidies with risk management programs. Farmers would get to choose between a shallow loss program to pay for losses not covered by crop insurance or a program with payments when crop prices fall below target prices.

The bills replaced the Milk Income Loss Contract Program and the Dairy Product Price Support Program with a voluntary, margin-based assistance program backed by the National Milk Producers Federation.

The commodity risk management scheme was opposed by Southern rice and peanut interests, and they still don't like it. A failed attempt by candy and soft drink makers to end the sugar program is certain to come back again. Dairy processors still oppose supply management provisions of the dairy measure, and an alternative has already been filed.

While partisans of these issues in the House continued to make their points after the bill passed from committee, it was spending on the USDA's nutrition programs that kept the bill from coming to a vote.

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

That won't sit well with Democrats in control of the Senate who are more inclined to beef up the social safety net.

We are often told that including those programs in the farm bill ensures the engagement of urban legislators, giving the measure importance it otherwise would not enjoy. It also ensures the bill will become mired in a partisan struggle over something that has nothing to do with farming or ranching.

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