By: The Wisconsin State Journal
Wisconsin stands to benefit from the 2018 farm bill now before Congress. That’s why it’s important for the committee hashing out differences between the House and Senate versions to produce a compromise by the Sept. 30 deadline.
While the committee can keep negotiating beyond the deadline by extending the current farm bill, more time is not what Congress needs to resolve the disputes. Instead, the key to unlocking an agreement is for Congress to appreciate what the 19th-century master politician Otto von Bismarck so well understood: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.”
The farm bill is possible and attainable before the end of this month if Republicans and Democrats stop holding out for what’s best for their partisan goals and aim instead for the next best solution, which will serve the country’s interests. That’s the art of compromise that has been missing from Washington, D.C., for so long.
Holding up passage of the $420 billion farm bill is a dispute over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the food stamp program, which accounts for 80 percent of the spending. The House version cuts SNAP by tightening eligibility and imposing work requirements on more recipients. The Senate version leaves SNAP intact.
The House version is expected to kick 76,000 Wisconsin residents off food stamps, including 23,000 children. That’s about 11 percent of the state’s total food-stamp recipients.
Reducing fraud and encouraging work are important. But so is feeding families in need. The congressional negotiators’ job is to find a middle ground. They should do their jobs. Failure puts American agriculture at risk.
The farm bill comes up for debate every five years. Wisconsin entered this debate cycle with a need for improvement in the bill’s provisions affecting the dairy industry. Agriculture contributes about $88 billion a year to Wisconsin’s economy and provides about 12 percent of Wisconsin’s jobs. About half the economic contribution comes from the dairy industry. Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, is the top cheese-producing state and is home to more dairy farmers than any other state.
The dairy provision in the current farm bill, the Margin Protection Program, was a disappointment. Based on an insurance system in which farmers paid premiums to get taxpayer-subsidized insurance to protect against losses, the system proved to be a money-loser.
The Senate and House versions of the new dairy insurance program are slightly different, but both offer a stronger safety net. A University of Missouri professor concluded the new program could offer six times the benefits of the old program, depending on the size of a farm and the choice of coverage.
For taxpayers, the new insurance program should be more cost-effective. The current bill’s dairy program has a budget baseline of about $50 million a year. The new program should cost taxpayers about $100 million more over five years. For that extra expense, consumers should gain more stability in dairy product prices and supplies.
The farm bill makes other improvements important to Wisconsin, including legalizing the production of industrial hemp, in which the state once led the nation.
The bill also falls short in many areas. For example, though Wisconsin congressmen Ron Kind and Jim Sensenbrenner helped lead efforts to cap payments to wealthy farmers, the bill does almost nothing to rein in such unnecessary subsidies. But no farm bill has been perfect. Congress cannot let partisan perfection be the enemy of the greater good.
For Wisconsin, this bill is better than the expiring farm bill. Pass it.