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Farm Bill Update: Where Do We Go From Here?

Published: Jun 26, 2013
By Philip Seng, USMEF President and CEO

Last week’s rejection of the farm bill by the House of Representatives came as a shock to many in the U.S. agricultural community. Not only did it bring clearly to light a number of troubling questions about the future of agricultural legislation in our predominantly urban society, but in the near-term it also created an uncertain environment for many important programs affecting a wide range of industry sectors. For red meat exports, failure to pass a farm bill by the end of the current fiscal year (Sept. 30) would mean that the authorization to fund the USDA Market Access Program (MAP) and Foreign Market Development (FMD) program would not continue beyond that date. This would represent a significant loss for the U.S. beef, pork and lamb industries which rely on premiums delivered by the international marketplace to help sustain profitability.

Sept. 30 may not seem like a pressing deadline, but in terms of Congressional work days it is approaching at a very rapid pace. Taking into consideration the upcoming Independence Day holiday break and the traditional August and Labor Day recesses, there is very little time for the various House factions to work out their differences and pass a new, five-year farm bill. Even if a way can be found to make this happen, the House bill would still need to be reconciled with the Senate’s version by a conference committee before the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. Passage of another short-term extension of the 2008 farm bill is another possibility, but even this is no sure thing, given the opposition by many Republican House members to continuing spending on USDA programs at current levels.

The House’s failure to pass the farm bill was historic in several respects, but the most important of these may be the breakdown it represents in the traditional rural-urban coalition that has supported USDA programs since the 1960s. The convergence of interests that historically sustained bipartisan support for USDA’s diverse mission has often been cited as a rare example of how Congress can rise above regional and political differences to pass broad legislation like the farm bills that have guided USDA for 60 years. Last week’s vote showed just how fragile this coalition has become, with implications that go well beyond the farm bill and touch nearly every element of the Congressional agenda.

USDA’s budget is much smaller today than it was just a few years ago, and it is now clear to all of us in the agricultural community that we should be prepared for USDA to sustain further erosion in political support for its mission and programs. While I readily acknowledge that the current budgetary environment requires all of us to “share the pain,” I feel it would be short-sighted to cut programs like MAP and FMD that attract substantial private sector funding and generate impressive returns on the taxpayers’ investment. The track record of growth in agricultural exports and the role this has played in the continued health of the agricultural economy and rural communities across the country are undeniable, and this has a very broad impact on our nation’s economic well-being and balance of trade. With the overall economy still on less-than-steady footing, this is clearly not the time to reduce the effectiveness of one of its most powerful engines.

The farm bill funds many important functions beyond MAP and FMD that are also critical to agricultural trade. For example, our government’s ability to actively engage with trading partners – especially at the time when historic trade agreements are on the table – should not be compromised. Opportunities like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership do not come along every day, and the people responsible for negotiating and enforcing these agreements must have the resources necessary to succeed.

For our part, USMEF will continue doing everything possible to find new ways to stretch available funds by keeping our operations lean and efficient. As part of this effort we will further tighten our planning and priority-setting processes to ensure that we are getting the biggest “bang for the buck” from investments we receive from producers through their checkoff programs and from USDA through the MAP and FMD programs.

As the smoke clears and we begin to see a way forward for the farm bill, I will provide you with updates on the status of the MAP and FMD programs and the broader effort to get legislation in place by Oct. 1. In the meantime, I want to thank you again for your continued support for USMEF and our mission of expanding exports and increasing the profitability of the red meat industry.