Written by Paul Penner Tuesday, 24 May 2011 14:54
Prior to organizing his House Ag Committee, Oklahoma Republican Congressman and committee chairman Frank Lucas appeared cautiously optimistic in his assessment of completing a new farm bill before the current bill expires.
Post-election, political dynamics have changed so much that his assessment has changed as well. Lucas says, “Out of 46 members of my committee, I have 23 people who are new to the committee and 16 who have never been in Congress. I have a year’s worth of education to do before we can even get started.”
Energized by success in the last election, newly elected and emboldened conservatives will not negotiate. Likewise, liberals have responded in kind. “Compromise” is the new dirty word, according to moderate House members on both sides of the aisle.
Additionally, the challenge for Lucas in educating his committee members is to get freshmen legislators of his own political party to agree on the agenda, and that the current federal budget crisis cannot be solved in its entirety by gutting or eliminating entire farm programs and forcing agriculture to bear a disproportionate share of the financial burden.
Conservative Tea Party political thought does not recognize the strategic value of USDA funding of research programs that are the front line of defense against extremely virulent wheat rust diseases like Ug99.
To date, there is not enough resistance in current wheat varieties to stave off the looming threat threat of Ug99, where plant mortality approaches 100 percent.
Additionally, forthcoming debate in both houses regarding new farm-bill legislation will determine how serious America is in recognizing agriculture’s importance to the nation’s food security. If Lucas’s assessment of his own Ag Committee is any indication, we have a lot of work to do to move both political parties towards a workable solution for the farm bill.
Wheat farmers across the nation have affirmed the vital importance of maintaining direct payments to farmers. In a drought, this payment, along with a viable crop insurance component, may be all the revenue a farmer will receive. It will help pay for needed inputs necessary to get another crop in the ground.
The current drought that hovers over the high plains states of Texas, Oklahoma, western Kansas and Colorado only serves to heighten the vital importance of a multi-tiered safety net of crop insurance and a direct payment that covers exposed risk not covered by insurance.
In blunt terms, an $8 wheat market is useless to a farmer if he or she has nothing to sell.
An old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Whenever a budget crisis comes along, legislators readily point to budget items that do not negatively impact their pet programs. Agriculture is one program they love to cut, and call out to be a leader and be an example for others to follow.
Unfortunately, few legislators were willing to follow agriculture’s lead. For instance, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 was supposed to eliminate the federal deficit, but in reality, majority party legislators always found ways to increase federal spending on their pet programs.
Since that act’s passage, agriculture’s percentage of budgetary spending has been on the decline while other federal programs continued to increase.
Sadly, agriculture has been fooled one too many times, the latest as recent as 2010, having more than $4 billion cut from crop insurance, while other sectors of the federal budget absorbed the cut into their money hungry programs.
It is time for all federal programs to step up to the plate and share an equitable and proportional share of budget cuts.
Reminding his audience and the media that agriculture has already taken double-digit reductions in program spending in 2010, Rep. Kingston likens farm-bill cuts to skinny-dipping: No one wants to be first in the water. Farmers are often persuaded to go first, but when they turn around to see who will join them, everyone else has left with their clothes, leaving farmers in the water alone.
Kingston adds, “I won’t let that happen. Everyone has to share the burden.”
As an advocate for agriculture, I hope Kingston will succeed. Unfortunately, his success depends on whether others will cooperate. Radical factions from both political parties must tone down their rhetoric and get down to the serious business of government and find ways to move this great nation forward.
If they do not succeed, we will face an even greater crisis in the near future, and facing re-election will be the least of their worries.