Commentary: Government dysfunction displayed over farm bill

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Editor's note: Tom Quaife is editor of DairyHerd Network, a sister website of Pork Network.

9:45 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 1:  I never thought it would come to this. While watching a New Year’s Day football game on TV, I am also monitoring a live feed of the U.S. House of Representatives on my laptop computer.

I’d rather concentrate on the football game.

These are not ordinary times. Our increasingly dysfunctional government met over the New Year’s holiday to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” at the last possible moment. 

Whether to go over the fiscal cliff or not ― it never should have come to this, noted Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) in remarks to the House just prior to a vote on the fiscal cliff package. “The American people are really fed up with what they see in the dysfunctional Congress,” he said.

The fiscal cliff notwithstanding, look at how the Congress handled the farm bill during the past six months.

After a bipartisan push to get the farm bill passed last summer, along with needed dairy policy reforms, the measures made it through the U.S. Senate and the House Agriculture Committee only to be held back from a full floor vote in the House. 

Then, for the next several months, the news media speculated on the possible doubling of milk prices in the grocery store in the absence of a new farm bill. Consumers started to get worried. (If I never see another headline like “How the ‘dairy cliff’ will cream consumers,” it will be fine by me.)

Finally, this week with the fiscal cliff negotiations, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly used his bargaining leverage to exclude dairy reforms from the farm bill extension. (House Speaker John Boehner is not a fan of the reforms, either.) It is unfortunate that one or two people in key leadership positions can thwart the actions of the full Senate and the House Agricultural Committee in getting these reforms passed. Read more.

No one knows where it will finally end.  

The only certainty is that farm bill discussions willl be more difficult in 2013 because of budget constaints facing the federal goverment. 

Ironically, the farm bill that made it through the Senate and House Ag Committee last summer would have saved the taxpayers money compared to previous farm bills.

The dairy reforms are needed, as well. “Margin protection” would help protect producers against unfavorable swings in feed cost relative to the milk price. It’s a modern approach to dairy policy, acknowledging the importance of the feed:milk margin ― the critical factor for many producers today ― along with risk management and fiscal responsibility by having producers limit production increases during tough economic times (when the margin protection payments are made).

Yet, it’s hard to get consensus.

Frankly, I am wondering if it is possible to get widespread agreement on anything in the dairy industry.  

Last October, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack noted the difficulty of getting things done when dairymen are divided on the issues.

“As I travel around the country, what I’ve noticed (is) dairymen and dairywomen have a hard time agreeing,” Vilsack told a World Dairy Expo audience. “The problem is we have not had consensus and that’s made it difficult for us to get a program that would allow some stability and some protection,” he said.

Congress's nine-month extension of existing dairy policy -- as part of the fiscal cliff package -- gives us time to step back, re-group and look for creative solutions to the problems at hand. Read more.

Let’s keep an eye on Congress and the White House, as well, and vow that we will never become that dysfunctional.


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