Red state farmers, conservatives clash over farm bill

2012-08-04T20:30:00Z 2012-08-04T21:23:19Z Red state farmers, conservatives clash over farm billBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The House adjourned for its five-week August break on Friday without passing a controversial farm bill, revealing a widening split between conservative farmers and Republicans opposed to subsidies.

The two groups, like-minded on other political issues, spent the last two weeks lobbying against each other. Farm groups warned of dire consequences without a comprehensive farm bill that included much-needed drought assistance.

Conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform and the Competitive Enterprise Institute accused farmers of using “the current drought to lock taxpayers into a trillion dollars worth of bad agriculture policy.”

Congress returns to Washington in mid-September, for 10 working days. If Congress fails to pass a new farm bill by Sept. 30, federal farm subsidies will revert back to the 1949 farm bill intended for a very different America, in which there were 5 million farms — more than five times today’s number, and no crop insurance.

The 1949 farm bill has been the backstop for every farm bill that’s followed, but Congress has always managed to pass a new farm bill.

These are different times. Last month, for the first time in a half century, according to the Associated Press, House leaders chose not bring the House Agriculture Committee’s draft farm bill to the floor for debate.

Passed out of committee on a bipartisan vote but blocked from the House floor, that version of the farm bill has been in limbo since July 11.

The Senate approved its version of the farm bill in June. Its next stop would be a conference committee where leaders from both congressional branches would cobble a compromise between the Senate and House versions.

Without a House farm bill, there is no conference committee. With 10 working days left before Sept. 30, a new farm bill seems unlikely.

“I don’t know how they’re going to do it and I’ve been involved in three or four farm bill discussions,” said Brian Eggebrecht, Montana Grain Growers Association president and a Malta farmer. “This by far is the most convoluted one I’ve ever seen.”

The farm bill is something everyone should be watching, said Alan Merrill, Montana Farmers Union president.

The farm portion of the bill contains 37 agriculture programs that fall off the books without a new bill, but 80 percent of its $900 billion is dedicated to food programs for the elderly, the poor and underprivileged children.

In pleading for a farm bill vote earlier in the week before the House left on break, Merrill wrote that House leaders had not only stalled on a new farm bill, but didn’t take a proposed one-year extension of the current bill beyond discussion.

Ultimately, the House passed a $383 million emergency bill to help ranchers, chickens and tree crops, but didn’t include provisions for farmers.

That proposal stalled because the Senate refused to consider it unless the provisions were rolled into a five-year farm bill.

“We can’t agree to get the cowboys and the farmers together,” Eggebrecht said.

“Every proposal has some kind of problem with it and you can’t even negotiate.”

As House members exited Friday, the groups that appeared to have received what they wanted were Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who encouraged House Republicans to wait until September before taking up the farm bill. These groups don’t just operate in Washington D.C.

Americans for Prosperity has a Montana chapter that claims 7,517 members in the Treasure State.

This election cycle, the group is probably best known for its “Tester Truth Tour,” a rolling call center and advocacy bus that’s traveled the state raising awareness about the voting record of Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who is in a heated re-election battle against Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.

AFP does not approve of Tester’s voting history. The group is a strong advocate for government spending cuts and has strong ties with the Tea Party.

Joe Balyeat, AFP Montana’s state director, said the United States is at a point where government debt has become so great that several future generations will be saddled with the bill for current spending. The country has to cut government spending and he hopes the agriculture community realizes that also.

“I think even people who have typically have been on the receiving side of government subsidies, including the agriculture community, are realizing that they can’t just vote their pocketbooks any more,” Balyeat said. “They’ve got to vote for the children and their grandchildren.”

Balyeat, who served as a Republican in the Montana Legislature, said the Montana farm community is one of the most significant groups of swing voters in the state because though they’re conservative, they’ll vote according to farm policy over party.

“Even though the agriculture industry only represents 10 percent of the Montana economy, if you look at the last 10 statewide office holders almost every one of them has a farm background,” Balyeat said.

Montana AFP has been mostly focused on American health care law, Balyeat said. The national organization was pressuring the House not to vote on the farm bill this month.

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