While most of Washington, D.C., is consumed with the faux scandals du jour, in a few corners of Congress, actual work is getting done. A day 329 days late and a dollar $20 billion short, perhaps, the farm bill, an every-five-years legislative train[wreck], lumbers slowly forward.
Both the House and the Senate agriculture committees have just passed their own versions of the massive piece of legislation that controls U.S. agricultural policy as well as the federal nutrition program formerly known as food stamps (now called SNAP). A full House and Senate vote is the next step. Congress tried and failed to pass a farm bill last year. The question now is whether Congress can do it this time.
Actually, the question really is whether Congress will ever pass a farm bill again. For the first time, those close to the legislative process are starting to have their doubts. And that may be a really bad thing.
Bah, humbug, you say! The farm bill is larded with bipartisan subsidies for the largest-scale farmers who grow commodities like corn, soy, and cotton. It’s also the bill that authorizes the federal crop insurance program, which has grown like gangbusters over the last decade. Last year (thanks to the drought) farmers received over $17 billion in insurance payouts -- almost all of which benefited large-scale commodity agriculture. A chicken pox on all their coops!
That not an unreasonable reaction. But also at stake in the farm bill are billions of dollars for conservation programs that help farmers mitigate the environmental effects of their work, and pay them to set aside marginal farmland as wildlife habitat. It also contains millions in federal funds that support organic farmers, help younger and “new” farmers get their start, and prop up local food efforts, organic research, and farmers markets.