Montana’s congressional delegation was unanimous in expressing deep disappointment and frustration last week when the U.S. House failed to pass a Farm Bill.
Rep. Steve Daines, Sen. Max Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester are right to be outraged: Agriculture supports one in five Montana jobs; it’s Montana’s No. 1 cash-generating industry. The Farm Bill also covers the nation’s major nutrition programs for poor Americans. One in eight Montanans gets monthly groceries from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, including 51,090 children, 13,746 disabled persons and 9,159 senior citizens.
“Today is a prime example of what’s wrong with Washington,” Daines said after the House vote.
What’s wrong is that the House also failed to pass a Farm Bill last year — after agriculture programs expired. The House managed only a one-year extension of existing programs. That was a terrible outcome.
For one thing, the disaster assistance program for livestock producers wasn’t part of the extension. The lapse in that program coincided with one of the worst droughts in southeast Montana history.
And 1-year extensions are poor policy. Agricultural producers can’t plan their business not knowing what federal policy will be next year. America needs a five-year farm bill.
The Farm Bill is a rural-urban bill in Montana. Folks who need and receive SNAP benefits live in all 56 counties. Agriculture is a big industry throughout the state.
Yellowstone County, the state’s biggest population center, also is the No. 1 county in market value of agricultural products sold, according to USDA data.
That fact is recognized by the Billings Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored its annual ag tour last week. The tour started with breakfast where Dave Dougherty, chairman of the Chamber ag committee, repeatedly reminded the early morning crowd of the connection between farm and ranch profits and Billings retailers’ success.
“Agriculture is still the big dog,” said Steve Lackman, Yellowstone County extension agent. “We still make the state run.”
In 2011, wheat accounted for the highest amount of cash receipts in Montana’s ag industry, followed by cattle and calves, Lackman told the Chamber gathering. The No. 3 cash source was government payments.
Pass bipartisan, 5-year bill
Despite its well-deserved reputation for inertia, the U.S. Senate passed a good 5-year Farm Bill this year, as it did last year. The bill passed with bipartisan support.
Baucus, who helped write the Senate bill, has called on the House to pass it. That would be a good, common-sense solution. The Senate bill saves money over present law, reworks farm programs, but provides disaster aid for livestock producers and the Senate’s SNAP reforms won’t eliminate food benefits for needy Montanans.
Tester, who is a Montana farmer, pointed out that the Senate bill offers new crop insurance options, helps farmers preserve clean air and water and ensures public land access for sportsmen and women.
It’s time for Speaker John Boehner to cut a deal with Democrats and farm state Republicans willing to negotiate to provide the good long-term policy the agriculture industry deserves while ensuring that America doesn’t take food from the poor to satisfy political ideology.
The U.S. Senate has already written and approved such a bill and time grows short.
The present one-year Farm Bill expires Sept. 30, but Congress has barely a month of work weeks before that deadline. Lawmakers will take a holiday break next week and recess early in August for a break lasting past Labor Day.
Passing the Senate bill before the August break would allow America’s farmers to keep working without worrying about the Farm Bill, and maybe – just maybe – Congress could get something else done before it goes on Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations.