By Gabrielle Serra
While the clock ticks toward the end of the 112th Congress, fiscal cliff negotiations are taking up all the oxygen and political capital in Washington. The president and Speaker Boehner bear the lion’s share of burden in averting consequences to our economic recovery that would occur if the significant fiscal contractions scheduled to take place in the coming weeks are not addressed. While both parties continue to try to position themselves so as to claim major concessions from the other side as a tradeoff for any compromise, the possibility of a deal remains possible, yet murky, and anything but certain. While Healthy Farms Healthy People is as concerned as anyone about what’s at stake from the fiscal cliff, and any alternative agreement, we are especially concerned about what these negotiations mean for the fate of the farm bill.
It has become increasingly clear that the House has neither the time nor political will to move a farm bill under regular order. The future for the farm bill now rests on whether reauthorization can be attached to another must-pass legislative vehicle before the end of the year. And by reauthorization, we mean either a five-year new comprehensive bill or an extension of the 2008 farm bill.
HFHP was encouraged this week when agriculture leaders had a green light to negotiate policy differences between the respective bills passed off the Senate floor and reported out of the House Agriculture Committee this past summer. For those like us looking for any sign to suggest that the wheels of democracy are in motion, agriculture leaders made public statements to the effect that they are fully invested in successfully negotiating a new 5 year farm bill and they are currently not negotiating parameters for an extension of the 2008 bill. Each of the four agriculture leaders have suggested a willingness to bend a little on each of their signature issues, including Title I (Commodity Programs) and Title IV (Nutrition Programs), which continue to be the big elephants in the room. There is real optimism that a compromise is attainable.
While agriculture leaders express confidence that they can achieve an agreement on the outstanding issues in the commodity title, the partisan divide over cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is no closer to being resolved. With the highly charged nature of the SNAP cut debate, the reality that neither the House nor Senate could pass a bill that reflects the amount of cuts proposed by the other chamber, and a recognition that legislative action of some kind is needed to enact a farm bill before the end of the year to avoid reverting back to 1940’s farm policy, the scope and scale of cuts to SNAP are to be decided at the highest level.
If the president and the speaker are able to reach a compromise on SNAP cuts that would be amendable to both chambers, it is increasingly likely that a new farm bill could be finalized and attached to any fiscal package that moves before the end of the year. While there is no easy path ahead, moving a new comprehensive farm bill continues to be politically more attractive than extending the 2008 bill because of the significant savings, ranging from $23 to $35 billion, that a new farm bill could contribute to offset the cost of a larger fiscal cliff agreement.
To be sure, however, the possibility of an extension of the 2008 farm bill into 2013 remains a plausible option that may be necessary if fiscal cliff negotiations fail.
No doubt, there is substantive and political work that has yet to be done in order to ensure a desirable new farm bill is achievable this year. And, the devil remains in the details. With negotiations ongoing, it’s not certain whether an outcome will be reached that HFHP and our colleagues will consider to be better than an extension, particularly among the nutrition, conservation, rural development, and food systems communities which have a lot at stake in either option. We are limited by an imperfect crystal ball in making our predictions as to whether 2013 may provide a better or worse environment for policy and program priorities, and there, as always, are differing views on the impact (or opportunities) of starting over again in the new year.
Healthy Farms Healthy People will continue to monitor the state of the negotiations and any farm bill developments in Washington. We continue to encourage agriculture leaders, congress and the White House to advance a new farm bill that is a good deal for the American people, that promotes a healthy, safe, and just food and farming system, and encourages vibrant rural communities.
Stay tuned, and stay hopeful.