With the budget/debt crisis behind us for at least the next few months, Congress has finally turned its attention to the humdrum business of legislating. Or, at least the intent to legislate.
Among the first orders of business should be a farm bill. The old one expired Sept. 30, just before a blizzard killed thousands of cattle in South Dakota, wiping out owners who would normally be able to turn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for assistance. So far, about all the department has been able to offer them is help with the cost of burying their cows and fixing fences; nothing they can take to the bank.
Depending on which version of the new farm bill passes, they could qualify for payments up to 70 percent of the value of the animals that died in the snow. Some will get by on that, some won’t.
Meanwhile, on Nov. 1, food stamp recipients will have their payments rolled back by slightly more than 5 percent; not for lack of a farm bill, but under an expiring provision of the 2009 stimulus bill. For a family of four, that’s a cut of $36 per month. However, millions of individuals and families could lose food stamp benefits altogether, again depending on how senators and representatives resolve the differences between their legislation.
In passing its version, the House of Representatives broke a link between farm and food benefits former Speaker Tom Foley forged almost 40 years ago. Representatives and senators from rural states supported the farm aspects, urban states the food. Farm bills were renewed routinely, all were happy, including many – rich and poor – who gamed the system.
The just-expired bill, for example, paid $5 billion each year to farmers and landowners whether they planted a crop or not. With increasing pressure for budget cuts, some lawmakers finally awakened to the realization millions were being paid to those hardscrabble dirt farmers on Manhattan Island.
This is a giant piece of legislation: almost 1,000 pages, with projected expenditures in the Senate version of nearly $1 trillion over the next decade. That’s a slight rollback from prior bills. The House bill is cheaper because food stamp aid was cut by $40 billion.
Many provisions are important to Washington farmers. The Market Access Program helps sell apples to India, and potatoes to South Korea, pears in Russia, and wheat around the world. New provisions would support research on berries, and promote the use of peas and lentils in school lunches.
And more than 1 million Washington residents receive food stamps. That includes one-third of all Spokane County residents.
House and Senate conferees will start to reconcile their bills Wednesday. The lone Washington participant will be Rep. Susan DelBene, whose district encompasses most of the rural areas in the northwest corner of the state.
How smoothly the representatives and senators can work through their differences will signal what lessons they took away from the government shutdown. There’s plenty of room for compromise, if they will. If not, 2014 will not go well.