MINNEAPOLIS Nov 11 The chances of the U.S.
Congress passing a five-year farm bill by year's end are a
little better than 50/50 given the gridlock over food stamps for
the poor, a top farm policy expert said on Monday.
"There is a slightly better chance than 50/50 that we will
get a bill rolled into a budget at the end of the year. But it's
no better than that," Barry Flinchbaugh, a Kansas State
University agricultural economist who advises legislators
shaping the U.S. farm bill, told Reuters on the sidelines of a
farm bankers meeting in Minneapolis.
The farm bill, already a year behind schedule, is the master
legislation that directs government supports for farmers and
food aid programs.
The bill is now with a conference committee of 41 members of
Congress who are hammering out the difference between the House
and Senate bills. The biggest difference: the Senate wants $4
billion cut from food stamps while the House wants to reduce the
program by $40 billion.
"Food is the only division. The other issues can be
settled," said Flinchbaugh, citing variations in how they
address crop insurance for farmers along with other subsidies.
Historically, the conference committee reconciles
differences and brings a compromise to a final vote. That
process has been hampered by the deep divisions between the
Republican-controlled House and the Senate, where Democrats are
in the majority.
"There is a way perhaps we can get past this food stamp
gridlock. We cut food stamps $6-$8 billion and then we put in
all these caveats the far right wants to put in the food stamp
program, like work requirements and drug tests," said
Flinchbaugh, who has advised on farm policy for over 40 years.
The government extended the expired 2008 farm bill last
year. Leaders of the House and Senate agricultural committees
have a self-imposed deadline of reaching agreement by
Thanksgiving and the White House has threatened to veto a bill
with large food stamp cuts.
If Congress fails to pass a new bill, a second extension is
likely, Flinchbaugh said.
"There is some talk we will do that for two years because we
don't want to be messing with this during an election year,"
Flinchbaugh said. "Or, we implement the permanent legislation."
Without a new law, U.S. farm policy will be dictated by an
underlying 1938 permanent law that would bring back the concept
of "price parity" which led to sharply higher guaranteed crop
prices, Flinchbaugh said.
"It's normally been the safeguard to push the Congress to
act," Flinchbaugh said. "But I've never seen a Congress like
this one. So it's very hard to predict."
"Consumers are the biggest losers without a farm bill," he
Given the impasse on this farm bill - which traditionally
has had bipartisan support - some farm analysts are suggesting
this could be the last farm bill, ending 80 years of U.S. farm
policy designed to protect farm price and income.
"If we remove food and nutrition bills from the farm bill
this is the last one," Flinchbaugh said. "If we keep the
consumer-farmer coalition together there will be future farm
"There are 400 urban districts in the House of
Representatives and 35 rural districts. When you're a minority
like farmers - granted they are a potent minority because they
produce food - but you remove nutrition and food stamp programs
from the farm bill, the leverage is over.
"Another thing, if you take food stamps and nutrition
programs out of the farm bill you're removing about 85 percent
of USDA's budget. Can USDA survive with 15 percent of its
budget? Likely not," Flinchbaugh said.
(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)