Farm Bill on Life Support as Drought Worsens

This month, the House agriculture committee finished its work on the farm bill—a massive piece of legislation that sets policy on everything from government subsidies to food stamps. Even though the Senate had passed its version of the farm bill, which must be reauthorized every five years, no one expected House Majority Leader John Boehner to bring the House committee’s version to the floor before the August recess. Since the farm bill is likely to rile both the Tea Party caucus, which will balk at the huge subsidies that go to some of the nation’s richest farmers, and liberals, who will decry the $16 billion House republican leaders want to cut from food stamps in a time of increased need, most believed Boehner would view it too thorny an issue to bring up so close to election season.

As many predicted, Boehner has signaled that he will instead extend the current bill, which passed in 2008, by one year. An extension has the political advantage of allowing Republicans to avoid cutting payments to farmers, which would divide their ranks, while still cutting food stamps. Republicans would be able to use the extension bill to cut funding levels for programs they hate, like food stamps and conservation programs, without those cuts being subject to debate. They can also block changes they dislike, like those that would cut payments to wealthy farmers. Advocacy groups from across the political spectrum have objected to the extension.

The problem is that something must pass. Failure to pass a farm bill would shut down many programs that farmers, both big and small, rely on. The drought is adding extra urgency, and House leadership is now trying to use debt relief, which would be attached to the farm bill, to push this extension through. (They could pass a special drought relief bill and delay the farm bill fight, which is what many outside groups are calling on them to do.) The drought is affecting two-thirds of the country, including big farm states like Indiana and Kansas. Farmers are likely to continue seeing crop failures, and drought-relief measures provided in the last farm bill have already expired. There also isn’t a program now for livestock producers, so they need emergency relief. Worse, experts predict the drought problems will cause food prices to spike next year, which means those food-stamp cuts will hit many families extra hard.

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