August 6, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Congress’s compromise on farm bill needed

 

South Koreans put potatoes on their pizza, but not Washington potatoes.

The Koreans do not want to import zebra chip, so-called because slices from infected potatoes come out of the fryer striped, burnt and bitter. They are not harmful to humans, just bad looking, bad tasting and unmarketable.

Scientists are looking for ways to control its spread by psyllids – plant lice – or stop the infection. The Yakima Agricultural Research Laboratory and Washington State University were involved in that research, but not so much now.

New federal dollars for the studies were cut off a year ago, when Congress extended the 2008 farm bill rather than fixing its defects and enacting a replacement. Trouble is, money for new specialty crop research grants was not extended, which affected potatoes and other valuable Washington crops like peas and cherries.

The farm bill is again hanging fire, with less optimism this year than last that the Senate and House of Representatives can work out their differences by a Sept. 30 deadline. For decades, the measure has combined crop support payments and other assistance for farmers with food stamps for low-income households. A Senate version that passed with a bipartisan majority stuck with that formula, with downsizing that cut spending by $23 billion; $4 billion of that from food stamps.

The House cut non-food stamp spending somewhat less and did not address food stamps at all. Republicans cannot agree on how deeply to cut the program. The latest high bid is $40 billion from Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

That leaves resolution of the food stamp matter up to a conference committee of senators and representatives. The Senate members were named Friday. So far, nothing from the House, where nothing is progress when you’re focused on repealing legislation.

But time will be short when members return to Washington, D.C., for an exhausting nine-day work schedule for all of September after five weeks of summer recess. If the conference committee cannot wrap up its work quickly and get a compromise measure into the House and Senate for action by month’s end, only two things, both bad, can happen:

The 2008 farm bill is extended again, which will cost taxpayers more while research remains unfunded; or, that bill expires and nation’s agricultural policy reverts to what it was in 1949. Among the implications: Milk prices that double and discontinuation of a Market Access Program that has introduced Washington commodities to several new markets.

Neither the Senate nor House bills attack forcefully enough an inflated system of price supports and crop insurance assistance that puts the 10-year cost of the farm measure at close to $1 trillion. But asking the poor to take the brunt of the cuts is wrong. So is putting at risk research that returns $10 for every $1 invested.

Agriculture is a $40 billion industry in Washington. With global demand for food outpacing increases in production, the outlook is very good. But if a zebra chip or some other pest spreads because money was not there to find a cure, Washington farmers will not prosper as they might.

Congress has 55 days to act. If it can.

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