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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.

Now that the Farm Bill baton has been handed from the Senate to the House of Representatives, it’s worth pausing for a moment to examine the bill’s major features from the perspective of small farmers and the sustainable agriculture movement.

Commodity Reform

Good: From a policy perspective, the bill’s most significant provision relates to reform of the system of payments and subsidies designed to protect producers against the vagaries of the market. For the past fifteen years, this system has been based in part on subsidies that have limited or no relation to actual market conditions. The Senate-passed bill eliminates the most controversial of those subsidies in favor of an insurance-based system more closely linked with market conditions. Amendments approved during the Senate debate further modified the program to place limits on subsidies flowing to the largest farms, and to subject recipients to certain conservation requirements.

The move away from direct and counter-cyclical payments toward a market-based system, coupled with payment limits and conditions, are a welcome development in the government’s approach to farming. Given the influence and political savvy of the large commodity advocacy groups, major changes to subsidies don’t come around very often, and they should be recognized when they do.

Bad: Despite these encouraging steps, government support for agriculture remains oriented toward the staple crops produced by large farms. While the bill expands dedicated funding to support research and promotion of fruits and vegetables, the support comes in the form of block grants to states, which means the money will eventually dry up. In contrast, subsidies for staple crops will continue to flow as long as farmers are eligible. This effectively creates a two-tiered system, with more consistent and reliable support for staple crops than for fruits, vegetables, and other crops.

Food Stamps

Almost three-quarters of the money in the 2012 Farm bill is contained in its nutrition title,  and the bulk of that funding goes to the federal food stamp program (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). In addition to the importance of SNAP in providing nutritious food choices for all Americans, the issue of food stamps at farmers’ markets has received a good deal of attention in recent years.

Good: The bill includes a separate pot of funding that increases the value of SNAP dollars when they’re used at farmers’ markets, based on the successful and popular Double-Up Food Bucks program in Michigan, as well as money for a farmers’ market program aimed at improving access to fresh produce for seniors, and for promoting farmers’ markets across the country.

Bad: Due to increased influence by Tea Party sympathizers in Congress, the bill’s authors were forced to agree to make significant spending cuts, and SNAP was among the hardest hit programs. The Senate bill cut the program by about $4.5 billion over ten years. This is money that could have been used to strengthen measures to incentivize healthy choices, or to provide additional assistance to those in need.

Other Sustainable Priorities

Despite some of the structural disadvantages organic and sustainable farmers face under the proposal, the Senate bill continues or expands funding for several programs dedicated to supporting those causes in a variety of ways. Some examples include:

  • Fruits and Vegetables: As mentioned above, the bill increases funding for state block grants and other, smaller initiatives intended to support the research and promotion of fruits and vegetables (known as “specialty crops” in the agriculture policy arena).
  • Organic Farming: Funding for assistance to organic farmers, farmers transitioning to organics, and research and data collection is continued at approximately the same levels as in the previous farm bill.
  • Local and Regional Food Systems: As mentioned above, the bill increases funding to support and promote farmers markets in a variety of ways, and, with varying degrees of aggressiveness, it seeks to support local food projects like community gardens.
  • Access to Healthy, Affordable Food: The bill makes a number of changes to existing programs, including the Healthy Food Financing Initiative and SNAP, to help address “food deserts” and incentivize the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables (e.g., by allowing the use of food stamps for Community Support Agriculture operations).
  • Beginning Farmers: The bill includes a number of provisions designed to support new farmers, including by continuing the existing Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (offering education and training for new farmers) and improving access to loans and insurance.

While the bill is far from perfect form the sustainable perspective, and while not all sustainable-minded groups support the bill, it is notable that the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition–the movement’s most connected advocacy organization–came out in support of the bill at the conclusion of the Senate debate, even after grumbling audibly about the measure that came out of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Now, the action moves to the House of Representatives, where the Agriculture Committee approved its own bill earlier this week. While there are significant differences between the Senate-passed version and the House measure (primarily on the issue of SNAP funding), the main stumbling block in the lower chamber is related to internal Republican Party politics, which may prevent the bill from ever seeing the light of the House floor. With August recess only three weeks away, and with a September 30 deadline for passing a bill, that means the path forward for the 2012 Farm Bill remains uncertain, to say the least.

For now, supporters of sustainable agriculture can settle in for the House proceedings with the knowledge that the effort put forward by the Senate addressed many–if not all–of the movement’s priorities to an encouraging extent.

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.

The Mount Lemmon Marathon–an annual race held outside Tuscon, Arizona–starts in the desert floor and ends in the village of Summerhaven near the top of the highest peak in the Santa Catalina Mountain range. From start to finish, the course’s elevation increases 6,000 feet, all uphill.

Two thousand miles to the east, in Washington, DC, the effort to pass major legislation through Congress is often compared to a marathon. This week, the 2012 Farm Bill officially passed the halfway point.

After several weeks of uncertainty, the Senate passed its version of the bill on Thursday on a bipartisan vote of 64-35. The breakthrough came on Monday night, when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced that an agreement had been reached to vote on 73 amendments (out of the over 300 that had originally been filed), followed by a vote on final passage.

The victory represented a major victory for Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who (along with Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, her Republican counterpart on the Committee) kept hope alive during a sometimes chaotic Senate debate, and managed to push, coax, and barter her way to an agreement that her colleagues could live with, and a final bill that a ragtag faction of legislators could support.

Here are some of the main take-aways from this month’s Senate debate:

  • The fact that bill supporters were able to secure unanimous consent for the agreement (a requisite for nearly all Senate actions) suggests that senators on all sides of the debate viewed the 73 amendments as largely reflective of the main issues at stake. But since the bill’s opponents could have easily blocked the agreement, it is also indicative of the power of the Farm Bill’s constituencies in a difficult political environment.
  • Senators who voted against the bill on final passage fell into three camps: (1) southerners concerned that the bill’s new insurance-based subsidy system skewed its benefits toward midwestern crops and away from southern ones; (2) Tea Party sympathizers on the Republican side opposed in principle to large spending programs; and (3) liberal Democrats who were against the measure’s cuts to the food stamp program.
  • From a political perspective, it may have helped that Chairwoman Stabenow consistently sought to frame the bill in terms of its impact on jobs, is fiscal restraint, and its move away from some of the most controversial agriculture subsidies.
  • While most of the 73 amendments included in the agreement were more about putting senators on record with respect to certain issues than about actually amending the bill (as expected, a large majority of the amendments were voted down), two amendments making relatively significant policy changes passed: an amendment to limit crop insurance subsidies going to the largest farms, and one to require crop insurance program participants to comply with certain conservation requirements.

The debate now shifts to the House of Representatives, where Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) has been posturing to increase the odds that his version of the bill can get an airing before the full House. On substance, the deepest divide between the Senate and House versions of the bill center on the food stamp program, to which the House bill would make significantly larger cuts.

More generally, while the bill’s relatively bloodless Senate passage gives it momentum, the dynamic is far more complicated in the House, whose rules heavily tilt the playing field toward a Republican majority with a large contingent of Tea Party-backed spending hawks.

Should negotiations stall as we get closer to September 30–the expiration date on the last Farm Bill–the debate is likely to take on added urgency as legislators face up to another daunting scenario: the prospect of having to pass a temporary extension of current programs to avoid reverting to outdated and potentially draconian policies of the 30s and 40s.

For now, the bill steps back from center stage, and its proponents can take a breather before gearing up for the next leg of the race. And as the finish line gets closer, the course seems to only be getting steeper.

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.

The road ahead is increasingly bumpy, but the Farm Bill continues to lurch forward, one pothole at a time.

After clearing a procedural hurdle last week, the Senate officially began consideration of the bill on Monday, setting the stage for a time-honored Senate practice–the filing, consideration, and disposition of amendments.

Under normal Senate rules, senators are free to offer as many amendments as they wish on any topic under the sun, and to demand a vote on them. Since disposing of amendments this way would be impractical–debating and voting on the hundreds of amendments offered to most Senate measures could take months–party leaders and bill managers attempt to negotiate a more efficient path forward. Some amendments are modified and incorporated into the legislation, some are set aside to be addressed at a later date, and many are withdrawn altogether, all in the interest of comity and compromise.

If a few senators put up a fight (nearly everything in the Senate requires the unanimous consent of all 100 members), 60 senators can vote to invoke “cloture,” limiting remaining debate and amendments, and forcing an eventual up-or-down vote on the measure.

Such is the procedural backdrop against which the Senate is currently debating the Farm Bill. Here are a few things you should know about the current state of play, and how things might develop in the coming days and weeks:

  • Somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 amendments have been filed to the bill so far. Some of these relate to substantive concerns about the legislation, but many do not .
  • Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas)–Chairwoman and Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee–are working with their respective party leaders and members to reach an agreement on which amendments require votes, which can be accommodated without a vote, and which can be set aside.
  • By far the toughest nut to crack is on the Republican side, where it has been reported that certain senators–e.g., Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky)–are demanding votes on problematic amendments in return for their consent to move the process forward.
  • Should those negotiations fail, it will be up to Majority Leader Harry Reid to determine whether he can secure the 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and bring debate to a close. Attempting to do so without being sure of the outcome is a risky gambit, because a failed vote would likely signal the bill’s demise.
  • Internal Republican politics are casting a shadow over the entire debate. With the prospect of the bill’s passage in the House even less certain, many Senate Republicans would just as soon avoid creating a political problem for themselves and their House brethren by taking a tough vote to leave yet another thorny piece of legislation on House Speaker John Boehner’s doorstep.

Despite these complicated dynamics and daunting challenges, the Farm Bill has lived to fight another week. And in a political environment where the assumption is that no significant legislation has a chance of passage, that simple fact proves the bill’s odd resilience.

Built on unorthodox regional and political alliances and propelled by a desire in both parties to champion the cause of rural communities, the rickety legislative wagon rolls on, hoping to stay ahead of the gathering storm.

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.

The Standing Rules of the United States Senate officially consist of 44 rules, each with their own sub-rules, caveats, and conditions. They cover everything from the appointment of a presiding officer (Rule I), to the filibuster (Rule XXII), to the jurisdiction and make-up of Committees (Rules XXIV-XXVII); their reach extends even to practices like franking and the use of Senate television and radio studios.

Unfortunately for legislators, the list does not include rules for how to actually get things done in the Senate. Those rules exist in unwritten form, of course, and include the time-honored tactics of coalition-building, horse-trading, and back-slapping–the humours of the body politic.

Both sets of rules will be on full display this week as the Farm Bill hits the Senate floor, five weeks after the five-year, roughly $500 billion measure was approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee. Here are a few things you should know as the Senate begins debate on the bill:

  • The first hurdle in the debate is something called the “motion to proceed” to the bill, which is expected to take place Thursday. The bill’s supporters have asserted that they have the 60 votes required to proceed to the bill, should a vote even be necessary.
  • Because the bill will eventually be required to overcome another 60-vote hurdle to bring debate to a close (the infamous “cloture” vote), Thursday’s vote on the motion to proceed will be a rough gauge of the level of support for the bill, and the likelihood of its passing the Senate should it remain relatively intact.
  • The debate is likely to consume most of the month of June, during which there will be a veritable onslaught of amendments offered on a range of issues (including many not actually covered in the bill). Some of the amendments will reflect legitimate member priorities, while many others will be thinly veiled attempts at forcing a vote on a politically sensitive issue in an election year.
  • Because this bill–like any Farm Bill–represents a delicately crafted balance between competing regional and political interests, amendments that significantly affect the bill’s distribution of money or alter core provisions are a threat to final passage.
  • The biggest threat to the bill’s survival will not be senators and/or interest groups that believe the bill doesn’t do enough to address their specific agriculture priorities, but rather Tea Party sympathizers looking to make a high-profile statement about their opposition to “wasteful” spending.
  • The House of Representatives is working on its own, very different bill, and the differences between versions will eventually be negotiated by representatives of both chambers. In an effort to stave off potentially problematic amendments, proponents of the Senate bill will attempt to assure members that their concerns will ultimately be addressed in that forum.
  • Above all, the debate will be less a substantive back-and-forth than a political and procedural chess match to determine whether or not the bill can advance to the next stage. And even if it does, the process will be far from over; the House needs to act on its bill, outstanding differences need to be reconciled, and both chambers must vote–again–on the final product.

If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it is. But understanding the procedural tools legislators will have to use to shoehorn the bill through to final passage and the bald-faced political dynamics at play is essential if food reformers want to be taken seriously by the powerful few who actually write the Farm Bill.

And that’s why an “open letter to Congress” sent this week by celebrity chefs and prominent members of the sustainable food intelligentsia may not have been the best way for the movement to get its point across. At this late stage, high-profile “shaming” tactics are likely only to be resented–particularly by senators and staff who believe they’ve already done a lot for sustainable agriculture by moving away from market-distorting subsidies and directing additional funding to programs that support fruits and vegetables, organics, and research.

Food reformers would be well-served to pay close attention to the mechanics of the floor debate beginning this week, both because a Farm Bill resembling the Senate version is likely the best they can hope for this time around, and because the knowledge they glean will position them to have an even greater impact five years from now.

UPDATE: On Thursday, the Senate invoked cloture on the motion to proceed to the bill on a vote of 90-8, clearing the way to begin formal debate by no later than Tuesday.

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.

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.

The cow is finally out of the barn. And it’s a little leaner than it was four years ago.

Last Friday, the Senate Agriculture Committee fired the opening legislative salvo in the effort to pass a 2012 Farm Bill when Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) released their bipartisan draft bill for consideration by the Committee.

Process-wise, the draft proposal is significant because it represents the official legislative starting point in the process, as well as the culmination of months of hearings and negotiations–both within the Committee and between legislators and agricultural interest groups.

Most of the initial news coverage about the bill will focus on its price tag, which amounts to an approximately $25 billion cut in overall Farm Bill spending over the next ten years (out of a total of $995 billion, for a cut of 2.5%). In addition to serving as a meaty target for the assault on spending, the proposal makes some noteworthy policy changes.

Since the minutiae of farm policy can have the same effect on one’s brain as a captive bolt pistol, it’s best to ease into things slowly. The vast majority of Farm Bill money is divided into four main areas: nutrition, commodity payments, crop insurance, and conservation, with nutrition taking the lion’s share (approximately three-quarters) of that funding.

Nutrition is obviously a centerpiece of the bill, and at the heart of the debate over cutting spending (Congressional Republicans–notably, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan–have targeted food stamps for massive cuts). However, it is the the other three major pieces–commodities, crop insurance, and conservation–that drive U.S. farm policy.

Of those pieces, commodities payments and crop insurance together comprise what is considered the “safety net” for American farmers. When you hear people arguing about whether our agricultural policies provide the right kinds of incentives for our food system, they are arguing about how this safety net is–and should be–woven together.

For the past decade and a half, the commodities title of the Farm Bill, which dictates the nature and levels of the subsidies that flow to farmers, has essentially been a three-legged stool consisting of direct payments (fixed annual payments based on historical yields irrespective of market conditions), “counter-cyclical” payments (payments based on historical yields triggered when crop prices fall), and marketing assistance loan payments (payments based on a farm’s actual production and triggered when crop prices fall below a price “floor”). Only a handful of staple crops are eligible for these payments, and over 90% of all payments go to five crops: wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton.

Due to its complexity and reliance on factors that have little to do with market conditions, this system has drawn its fair share of criticism. And the Senate Committee’s draft proposal contains what, in the insular world of DC-savvy agricultural types, amounts to a sea change: the elimination of direct and countercyclical payments, the very face of the “subsidies” that are so often decried.

In their place, the bill would create a new kind of insurance program to complement the existing crop insurance program, significantly shifting the safety net to a system based on risk management, rather than one based on chasing federal subsidy dollars. What remains to be seen is whether the proposed changes will have any significance outside the world of policy-makers–i.e., whether they will be perceived as a positive step for the future direction of our food system as a whole.

Ultimately, it comes down to expectations. If you’ve been hoping that negotiations between mostly self-interested politicians and entrenched interest groups operating under intense budgetary and political pressures would produce a complete overhaul of the farm subsidy system, you’re likely to be disappointed.

However, if you can take some measure of comfort in incremental reform, you have reason to be encouraged by the fact that those same politicians and interest groups have demonstrated a willingness to relax their leather-gloved death grip on a status quo that even they acknowledge had market-distorting effects.

As the Senate Committee begins the work of debating and modifying the draft bill in public mark-ups this week (the first session is being held today), supporters of sustainable agriculture should listen for how the new subsidy system is framed in the context of the effort to reform the food system, as well as how the draft bill addresses other sustainable priorities, including fruits and vegetables, organics, beginning farmers, and research.

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

Around these parts, a healthy mix of policy, politics, and punditry is as much a part of a balanced meal as protein, vegetables, and starch. I hope you’re hungry, because you’re about to get your fill of all three, wrapped up in a colossal–and colossally important–piece of federal legislation known as the Farm Bill.

As is the case every five years, the Farm Bill is up for reauthorization this year, with its latest iteration scheduled to expire in September. The bill is an extremely complicated mixture of programs, all of which impact the way Americans produce and consume food in varying and often inscrutable ways. Accordingly, the debate over the bill is riddled with misinformation and confusion, and serves to further cloud an already muddled issue.

This is the first in a series of posts that will attempt to synthesize the most important aspects of the debate over the 2012 Farm Bill and present them in a digestible way to people who care about promoting local, sustainable agriculture.

Unfortunately, the solutions to some of our food system’s most serious problems are not as simple as we would like them to be. Even if we knew definitively how to structure our federal farm policies to elevate local, sustainable practices, the debate over the Farm Bill can’t ever be completely separated from the federal budget framework in which it is just one piece, or from the powerful political forces that too often dictate the policy-making process.

And, since that backdrop will be responsible for how the Farm Bill process unfolds over the next several months, it’s as good a place as any to start. First, it’s important to understand that the Farm Bill doesn’t exist in a fiscal vacuum; it’s part of a broader federal budget picture in which every dollar is the target of fierce competition.

The same is true of programs within the Farm Bill. It’s a fixed pot of money over which a wide range of constituencies–including environmental interests, traditional commodities producers, and reform-minded supporters of organic, regional farming–are forced to scrape and claw. Add into this mix the recent Tea Party-fueled hysteria over federal spending–in a Presidential election year, no less–and an already difficult fiscal dynamic becomes nearly intractable. The sharp regional divisions characteristic of federal farm policy and a divided Congress promise to make things even more fun.

And while all of these factors suggest that passing a Farm Bill in 2012 is at best an uphill battle, for a variety of wonky budgetary reasons, there is likely to be far less money to go around in 2013, increasing the pressure to get something done this year.

Now imagine trying to have a rational debate over the future of farm policy in this environment.

As daunting as that may seem, it’s exactly what we’ll try to do in this space in the weeks and months to come. Finding room on our plates for all of these moving pieces will be a challenge, but it’s imperative if we’re to understand why and how important decisions are made, and how advocates of sustainable farming can best focus their advocacy efforts. So pull up a seat, and get ready to dig in.