Peanut Harvest: How the Tightening Budget Noose Will Shape the Next Farm Bill

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

When most of us think of pies, our mouths start watering. In the world of farm policy, however, pies are more frequently represented as budget charts–and their impact on the next Farm Bill is likely to leave a bitter taste in our mouths.

Last Thursday, after a brief delay, the Senate Agriculture Committee reported out its version of the 2012 Farm Bill on a relatively strong bipartisan vote of 16-5. So what happens next?

As I’ve mentioned in my two previous posts, the Farm Bill requires reauthorization every five years, and the most recent iteration is scheduled to expire at the end of September. The proposal passed by the Senate Committee will serve as a guidepost for negotiations between now and then, and includes two noteworthy changes to previous policy: a significant cut in overall spending ($25 billion over ten years), and the elimination of two forms of subsidies in favor of a new insurance program designed to help farmers better manage risk.

Those of you who paid attention in civics class will remember that the next step in the legislative process is for the full Senate to take up, debate, and amend the bill. But when and whether that actually happens is the prerogative of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), and he’ll only bring it up if he believes the political upsides (and, to a lesser extent, the policy-related ones) outweigh the downsides.

Those downsides are significant. Putting the bill before the full Senate would give senators less concerned with farm policy than with politicking a ripe forum in which to rail against wasteful spending, as well as present a target for damaging and politically problematic amendments (e.g., on issues like pink slime, mad cow, and food safety)–all with no guarantee that both houses of Congress will agree on a final bill, and all in a Presidential election year.

Why not just wait until the political stakes are likely to be lower? For one thing, next year is the start of a new Congress, which means that the entire process would have to start over with new players. But an even bigger motivation to act now is that, fiscally speaking, next year is likely to be an even worse environment for those who believe farm policy reform requires devoting additional resources to sustainability. That’s because of a little something called the Congressional Budget Office “baseline.”

The baseline is CBO’s annual projection of what the government will spend given current law (i.e., all existing programs continuing at authorized spending levels) and projected economic conditions.

For the purposes of the Farm Bill, the CBO baseline is crucial, because it determines the size of the pot of money from which our farm programs derive their funding. Congress can spend more, but, according to CBO’s figures, doing so would increase the deficit and open the bill to all sorts of procedural points of order and anti-spending demagoguery that could sink the whole thing. (Congress can also spend less, as it is on the path to do this year–that $25 billion figure is the cut as measured against CBO’s baseline.)

And, due to the economy and some accounting quirks, CBO’s baseline for Farm Bill spending in 2013 is likely to be higher with respect to a few of the bill’s largest programs (e.g., food stamps and the conservation reserve program).

On one hand, a higher baseline figure is a good thing, since it means more money for farm policy makers to dole out. In the face of increasing budgetary pressures, however, the concentration of more baseline money in a few established Farm Bill programs translates to less money for other programs, including those that support organics, research, conservation, and beginning farmers. What’s worse, there are 37 such programs scheduled to expire on September 30, meaning their funding levels won’t even be included in the 2013 baseline, tightening the vise even further.

However you slice it, whether you believe the Committee-passed proposal is a step in the right direction or a disappointment, it’ll be worse for sustainable agriculture if Congress kicks the can into 2013.


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