Farm Bill Lost Opportunities

December, 2018

Lincoln -- The 2018 Farm Bill is now law. History will look back on it as a lost opportunity to do something more to stem decline in rural America.

To me it is almost inexplicable why Senators compromised away their bipartisan approach so as to accept harmful, partisan provisions in the House bill. The Senate was in a good position in November to advise the House either to drop the offensive provisions or to extend the 2014 Farm Bill until the House changed political control in 2019. Instead, in December the Senate allowed multi-year cutbacks to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and expansion of wasteful commodity subsidies to those who are not farmers and have no financial need for them.

The latter is particularly troubling because the expansion of these subsidies will soon be capitalized into the price of land, making entry into farming more difficult for young farmers and likewise making it more difficult for current, struggling farmers to pay property taxes. A major reason why land prices do not fall with commodity prices is federal subsidy spending on behalf of all the wrong people.

This is not a partisan issue. Iowa Republican Senator (and farmer) Charles Grassley has been fighting for better targeting of the farm safety net for years, as have many Democrats. Non-partisan groups on both the right and left have also tried to cut back on this hugely counterproductive spending, which should be re-directed elsewhere in the Farm Bill. (CSP could certainly benefit from it.) For a more in-depth analysis, see this analysis from Taxpayers for Common Sense, in which two Nebraska farmers are quoted.

As a Nebraskan myself, I was disappointed to see the Lincoln JournalStar commend the Farm Bill's so-called compromises in an editorial. The only necessary compromises had already been made in the Senate's own bipartisan bill, which had earlier passed the Senate 86-11. If there was any topic the newspaper should have been editorializing on, it would be the failure of Nebraska's congressional delegation to stand up for rural Nebraska interests. Don Bacon, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, actually supported large conservation cuts; Deb Fischer, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, helped ensure the demise of the Grassley Amendment.*

The editorial was also premature in praising how the ultimate compromise resolved the issue of work requirements for SNAP (food stamp) recipients. No sooner was the Farm Bill finished than the Trump Administration did by regulation what it could not get in the Farm Bill. Will we see an editorial about that, eating earlier words?

The purpose of this post is not to point out the egg that is now on many faces, but to urge more attention to the real issues of the Farm Bill. Rural America is in steep decline. The disastrous effects of the Trump tariffs will require new legislation as soon as 2019 to try to keep farmers afloat. This means the legislation just passed may have to be opened up again. Maybe this time Congress will come closer to getting it right.

P.S. (January, 2019) One of the reasons the Senate felt under pressure to make bad December compromises was lobbying from farmer organizations to pass legislation, good or bad, to provide the necessary "certainty" to permit farmers to get new operating loans. But within days, Farm Service Agency offices shut down and remain closed due to the government shutdown. So much for the benefits of rushing through legislation.

* Senator Fischer must also take some responsibility for Nebraska's high property taxes in that she led the effort, while a state senator in the Nebraska unicameral, to narrow the state sales tax base, a source of funding for property tax relief. Rather than relying on fuel taxes for road construction, she led the raid on the sales tax.