The Etta James song “At Last” is a classic love song, but it sure seems appropriate for the long-awaited arrival of a federal farm bill.
The whole world agreed that we needed more certainty for farm programs, as well as for the nutritional assistance programs that are contained in the farm bill. Disaster relief for those producers severely affected by drought – as well as for those impacted more recently by extreme winter weather – has languished for over two years as Congress was stalemated on a final resolution, and the grand compromise came this week. This week, the House approved the 900+ page conference report and the Senate is expected to vote on it next week.
While the real debate has focused on the big budget items like direct crop subsidies, the dairy program and, of course, the major share of the farm bill – nutritional assistance programs, the livestock title did have many issues for cattlemen ranging from disaster assistance to mandatory country-of-original labeling (MCOOL).
Not everyone is happy with what has resulted, but at least we will finally have some sense of certainty. As expected, the cuts (yes, they are not real cuts, but cuts in spending growth), were less than the fiscal conservatives demanded and largely cosmetic in nature. As has become the norm in Washington, there were a million promises broken in the final hours of negotiations as politicians scrambled to reach the consensus that would move the measure forward.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is one group that saw its wishes drift to the cutting floor as the final political trading began. As result, NCBA was opposing the bill, though it is expected to pass as additional changes at this point would be problematic. Unfortunately, the issue of MCOOL wasn’t addressed, and the U.S. will soon be facing trade retaliation and World Trade Organization judgment as a result. Perhaps that is the only way they will get addressed.
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It has to be sobering to the livestock industry that its interests and concerns were largely ignored in the farm bill. The anti-trade, anti-modern agricultural groups somehow seem to garner ever-more interest than the mainstream producer groups. The livestock industry, and agriculture in general, were perhaps too pragmatic from the beginning of the farm bill discussions.
They understood that the political winds dictated some budget cuts, and they knew the focus would largely be on the nutrition elements because they dominate the budgetary constraints. Yet they went in acknowledging that times had been pretty good, and that support would be reduced. I thought the attitude by the commodity groups was admirable and realistic, but we took any bargaining chips off the table. In addition, the lack of certainty without a farm bill led to a lot of pressure to just get something passed. Thus, in the final moments, the large mainstream groups had lost their leverage, and the activist groups were able to dictate the outcome in the end.
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