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Matt Erasmus

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.

Admittedly, both bills are, by the standards of sustainable agriculture, horrible. The Senate’s is the more “benign” of the two. It “only” cuts food stamps by $4 billion and conservation funding by $3.6 billion. It reduces farm subsidies by $16 billion, but increases crop insurance by $5 billion — a huge gift to corporate ag.

The House hews to the Senate blueprint overall, though it’s even friendlier to agribusiness, if that’s possible. But the House wants to cut a whopping $20 billion from food stamps — dropping from the program up to 2 million hungry Americans who are still suffering the effects of the Great Recession.

Ag Committee members will applaud themselves for also ending the controversial and wasteful subsidy program known as “direct payments” whereby farmers who grow certain commodity crops get cash regardless of how much they actually plant. But almost all the savings harvested from this program are plowed back into the expansion of crop insurance — including the introduction of an outrageous new “revenue insurance” program that would pay farmers in the event of small drops in prices. This would come at a time when crop prices and farm revenue are at all-time highs (more on the history of this proposed policy is here).

There are a few bright spots. Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) managed to include a provision in the Senate version that would link participation in the crop insurance program with adoption of conservation practices, and includes additional protections for disappearing native grasslands. The House version boosts funding for “new farmer” programs and a few local food initiatives.

But the bill, as envisioned by both houses of Congress, continues to be a virtual giveaway to the largest farmers while leaving crumbs to sustainable agriculture and small and medium-sized farmers. On many counts, it’s even worse than its 2008 predecessor.

So will it pass in the end? The answer is somewhere between “Reply hazy try again” and “Cannot predict now.” Both the House and Senate leadership have promised a vote by the end of June — so that’s something. But getting it through Congress will be a trick.

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) could use the same trick he used to avoid the “fiscal cliff” earlier this year: pass a harsher version of the bill through the Tea Party-controlled House with only Republican votes, and then turn around and pass a final compromise version — with lower cuts to food stamps — using mostly Democratic votes. But there’s reason to believe that the Tea Party wing may not stand for such a maneuver — and that the farm bill could die on the vine for the second time in a year.

It’s those food stamps cuts that threaten to doom the whole enchilada. The Senate passed a farm bill last year that included $4 billion in cuts and likely will again. But splitting the difference with the House version — say, adding another $8 billion in cuts to food stamps — is a non-starter in the Senate. Meanwhile, the Tea Party wing of the House killed the farm bill last year because food stamp cuts weren’t deep enough, so it is unlikely to support less than the $20 billion figure currently in the House version.

The death of such an abysmal farm bill would likely be greeted with cheers and confetti from some corners. After all, according to an analysis of federal data by the Environmental Working Group, 75 percent of crop subsidy payments go to the top 10 percent of farmers. A mere 10 percent of farmers also received just over half of the total crop insurance subsidies in 2011, including over two dozen farms that received $1 million each in insurance subsidies.

But Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, warns critics to be careful what they wish for. Reformers “would really be in big trouble” if the farm bill dies once and for all, Hoefner told me in an interview. While subsidies might still get tweaked here and there in a post-farm bill era, “the chance for investment in local food or farmers or organic or anything else will just go up in smoke.”

The reason is that the improvements to conservation policy and organic production and local food and farmers markets and so on have all been funded out of money pulled from the tens of billions of dollars spent on commodity crop subsidies. Without that “piggy bank,” as Hoefner called it, there’s no just no money for those programs, especially in the current era of federal budget sequestration.

If the farm bill fails, crop insurance would persist indefinitely without any further congressional involvement. The food stamps program does need minor adjustments every few years, but those can and have been handled outside of the farm bill. Every other component, however, would require new laws to be passed every few years. And as Hoefner observed, the parts of the farm bill most dear to sustainable agriculture advocates would be the parts least likely to survive as stand-alone bills.

Would the failure of the farm bill lead to a real shake-up in how the government makes farm and nutrition policy? Maybe. A crisis is also an opportunity and all that. But it’s also still a crisis. And very soon, farmers and eaters may find themselves in a big one.