Call it the “Food Bill”

That would be my first recommendation for those crafting the 2012 U.S. Farm Bill. After all, 76% of the farm bill’s spending goes to nutrition, food stamps, and school lunch programs.

That would be my first recommendation for those crafting the 2012 U.S. Farm Bill.

After all, 76% of the farm bill’s spending goes to nutrition, food stamps, and school lunch programs. It’s a fact that often gets overlooked by the media and the general public when criticisms are leveled against farm subsidies. The legislation is really about feeding our citizens, not just providing a safety net for farmers.

Secondly, it should be noted that the size of the newly named “food bill” is just a tiny sliver of the overall federal budget pie: about one-half of one percent of all federal spending. So while farm subsidies are seen as easy budget-cutting targets by many inside the Beltway, their significance to fixing the nation’s fiscal mess is a bit overblown.

Despite predictions of strong farm income on the horizon, agriculture’s fortunes have always been and will always be tied to volatile forces like the weather. Therefore, there will be bad years along the way. You write a farm bill with that fact in mind.

Now that that’s off my chest, here’s where things stand on the next farm bill.

The job nearly got done during the now-defunct Super Committee process. 

Farm bill spending was the only bipartisan recommendation received by the Super Committee that also came from both chambers of Congress.

From the onset of the Super Committee’s charge to cut 1.2 trillion over 10 years, the American Farm Bureau said agriculture would do its fair share. Nobody other than a handful of lawmakers knows the details of what was in the proposal, but we do know the plan was to cut $23 billion in spending. Some will say that if all things were equal, the farm bill’s “fair share” of cuts would have been around $6.7 billion.

Yet, when you consider that everyone from U.S. President Barack Obama to Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan was calling for cuts between $30 and $50 billion, that $23 billion cut starts looking more politically realistic.

Although the Super Committee came up fruitless, all of those farm bill discussions weren’t for nothing. Mary Kay Thatcher, the senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau, expects the 2012 farm bill will resurface in some other spending package next year. Instead of the secretive route the time-crunched Super Committee took in 2011, look for a more normal route (with public hearings, mark-ups, votes, and a conference committee) in 2012.

Insiders say it has been challenging to come up with a workable safety net program that works for all crops (instead of creating a new set of winners and losers). Many dairy advocates in Wisconsin have also seen these farm bill discussions as a rare window of opportunity for true federal dairy policy reform.

Just 7% of the farm bill goes to commodity programs like countercyclical direct payments to corn and soybean growers, and the Milk Income Loss Contract that provides relief when the milk price hits the floor. While those programs might be the first to be cut, look for crop insurance programs that let farmers manage their own risk to expand.

With one in seven Americans on food stamps, nobody expects big cuts to the nearly $700 billion in funding for the nutrition component of the farm bill. This makes drafting and paying for the 2012 farm bill all the more daunting, but there really is no time to waste as the federal debt grows by the minute.

They say the only things certain in life are death and taxes. I would add that everybody eats as well. That’s why the many ingredients of the next “food bill” should be of great concern.