The old formula for getting the House and the Senate to approve new farm legislation went like this: Structure the commodity payment programs in a manner that pleased cotton and rice to get the Southern votes, corn and soybeans to get the Midwest vote, wheat to get the plains and prairie state votes, dairy to get some votes from dairy states, and add a generous dose of food stamp and feeding program dollars to give urban and suburban legislators a reason to care.
This formula has been modified over the years to include more dollars devoted to conservation to quiet a growing effort to improve the environmental profile of agriculture. As Congress gets down to the difficult task of creating a 2007 Farm Bill that can get 218 votes in the House and 51 votes in the Senate, the viability of the old formula may be in question.
The Big Flaws
The big cracks in the formula showed up in 2002 when a not very well organized effort by Rep. Ron Kind produced 200 votes for an amendment that would have gutted the commodity payment programs to primarily increase funding for conservation. The House Ag Committee had nearly lost “their” Farm Bill on the House floor.
After that, members of the conservation, nutrition, and farm program reform communities saw the possibility that being better prepared and acting together might get them the power to redirect farm program spending to their particular policy needs. At the same time, specialty crop producers were banding together to identify policy priorities that should receive mandatory funding in the 2007 Farm Bill. The goals of the specialty crop growers did not include dismantling the program payments for wheat, cotton, rice, corn, and soybeans. Like it or not, as the policy debate has evolved, the 2007 budget realities seem to dictate modifications in the program crop payments if the specialty crop priorities are to be addressed.
To many Farm Bill veterans, it appears that 2007 will not go like other Farm Bill debates. The forces for change in the structure of the bill are significant. Even the national corn grower organization is dissatisfied with repeating the direction of the 2002 Farm Bill. Given the budget constraints and the make-up of the agriculture committees, the advocates of reform to commodity programs and/or shifts in funding toward nutrition, conservation and specialty crops can expect little or no help in those venues. That leaves the floors of the House and Senate open for the real debate on farm policy.