What's Influencing the 2012 Farm Bill Debate?
In its “Path to the 2012 Farm Bill” series, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) gets into the details of the 2012 Farm Bill debate. This first post in the series discusses the major factors influencing the 2012 Farm Bill timing and process.
With the failure of the Super Committee process last fall, Agriculture Committee leaders now resume work on the 2012 Farm Bill through a more normal process that involves hearings, committee mark-ups, and a committee and floor amendment process. The current farm bill expires Sept. 30, 2012, and Congress must take action on farm policy by then if it wants to avoid reverting to 1949 farm law—the fallback permanent law for the farm bill. That action can come in the form of passing a stand-alone farm bill, attaching a farm bill proposal to another bill, or passing a short or long-term extension of current law either as a stand-alone measure or attached to something else. Significant political, budget, and committee factors will influence that choice as well as the timing of the farm bill process this year.
Election Year Politics
The political backdrop for everything that Congress does this year is the 2012 Presidential and Congressional elections. This affects the farm bill process in two main ways. First, the legislative calendar will be shorter to accommodate Congressional campaign schedules. That leaves less time for hearings, committee meetings, and floor debates and votes. Given the condensed Congressional schedule, the majority of the work on the 2012 Farm Bill, though not necessarily final votes, would have to be finished by summer for a new bill to be enacted in 2012.
Second, Congress is closely watching approval ratings. Just about every legislative effort in the first session of the 112th Congress entailed a knockdown, drag-out fight between the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate and Oval Office. The long, partisan legislative battles have resulted in very low Congressional approval ratings. In this second session, Congressional leaders will be watching those ratings closely, and will be hesitant to engage in serious legislating unless there is notable pressure from the public.
Just because it’s an election year, however, does not mean that Congress can’t work on farm policy. Congress has previously passed a farm bill in an election year; the Food, Energy, and Conservation Act of 2008 was, in fact, passed in the presidential election year of 2008. But unlike the current situation, both the House and the Senate had already passed their versions of a farm bill in 2007. The work in 2008 was focused on reconciling the differences in the two bills through a conference committee and then passing the compromise.
While not a make-it-or-break-it factor, the administration has indicated that it will not be releasing a comprehensive farm bill proposal this year, and that it will largely leave the farm bill reauthorization up to Congress. Any benefit that the farm bill would receive from being a presidential priority—including media coverage, pressure on Congress to act, and discussion during the Presidential campaign—will, therefore, not occur.
Senate In Play
With several vulnerable Democratic seats and several retirements in the Senate, it is within the realm of possibility that Republicans will gain control of the Senate in the November election. This factor may motivate Senate Democrats to move forward with the farm bill.
The Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee up for reelection in 2012 are Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Robert Casey (D-PA). Sens. Kent Conrad (D-ND) and Ben Nelson (D-NE) are retiring. Of the five incumbent Democrats on the Committee seeking reelection, none is in a tight race at the moment. If that changes, then the pressure to deliver a farm bill in the Senate could increase.
There are more questions than answers about how budget factors will influence the farm bill process. What does seem almost certain is that the overall price tag of the 2012 Farm Bill will be lower than that of the 2008 Farm Bill. How much lower is anybody’s guess.
If All Else Were Equal
When Congress passed the 2008 Farm Bill, it provided mandatory funding for many of the programs on a permanent basis, funding that was counted (“scored” in budget terms) for a ten year period—2008 through 2017. There were a number of programs, however, that it only provided mandatory funding for through 2012. The programs that run out of money after 2012 total about $4.5 billion (excluding farm disaster payments), so even if Congress weren’t required as it currently is under the Budget Control Act to cut spending on mandatory programs including agriculture, it would have to find an additional $4-5 billion to cover the cost of extending the farm bill at current spending levels.
Because Congress failed to come up with a bill through the Super Committee process to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion over ten years, automatic budget cuts (“sequestration” in congressional parlance) will go into effect in January 2013 under the Budget Control Act passed in August 2011. Rough estimates from the Congressional Budget Office peg the cut to farm bill spending under sequestration at $15.6 billion. By law, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Conservation Reserve Program are exempt from sequestration cuts, so savings would come from other parts of the bill—most notably from the crop insurance subsidies, followed in terms of size of cut by the commodity program payments and then the conservation incentives.
If Congress does not amend the Budget Control Act—which mandates sequestration—and sequestration takes effect, and Congress has reauthorized a new farm bill by next January, then budget cuts could be made in the new farm bill that would supersede the automatic cuts. That is not to say that it must happen that way, only that it could. If it did, it would put Congress back in the driver’s seat in allocating the cuts, rather than the automatic pro rata cuts. It would also put Congress back in the driver’s seat with respect to the policies that would yield the budget savings, rather than punting those decisions to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the White House as would be the case under sequestration.
If January 2013 arrives without a new farm bill (but presumably with some sort of temporary farm bill extension), and sequestration happens, then the Agriculture Committees may have the opportunity to re-shape the cuts through a 2013 Farm Bill, though only after the first-year cuts have already been made.
Between now and when the automatic cuts go into effect next January, Congress may pass a new deficit-reduction plan that avoids sequestration and enables another spending reduction mechanism—such as budget reconciliation, which would give Congressional committees power to determine how to cut spending within their jurisdictions. The primary motivation to pass a new plan would be avoid the automatic cuts to defense spending that are currently included in sequestration.
The various farm bill scenarios are complex enough without also considering the annual agriculture appropriations bill. The connection between the farm bill and the appropriations bill is simple enough with respect to discretionary programs. The farm bill establishes the programs and the policies that undergird them, while the appropriations bill provides the funding to operate them. For farm bill mandatory spending, however, the farm bill establishes the programs, sets the policies, and the funding flows directly from the farm bill, without need for an appropriation.
Enter the CHIMPS. Not the animals, but “changes in mandatory program spending’—a device sometimes used in appropriations bills to take money out of mandatory programs in order to reprogram the spending to bulk up discretionary ones. In the last two appropriations cycles, Congress has taken more than a billion and a half dollars out of farm bill conservation coffers normally controlled by the Agriculture Committee and reprogrammed it to food safety, food assistance and other matters considered higher priorities by the Appropriations Committee.
Timing for this year’s appropriations bill is murky as well. Many observers believe that while there will be action in both the House and the Senate to put together this year’s appropriations bills, final action will not occur until well after the beginning of the new fiscal year on October 1 and after the November elections. If that prediction proves correct, then a “continuing resolution” of some sort will be necessary to extend current funding authorities into the new fiscal year. In recent years, even normally simple continuing resolutions have proved the source of great controversy and upheaval, though the pending election season may keep these theatrics in check.
Every Bill is an Opportunity to Cut Spending
There is currently a culture in Congress to use every debate on every bill as an opportunity to cut federal spending, especially in the House, where there is a strong Tea Party-influenced contingent. This adds an extra element of the unknown, especially in farm bill politics, because it creates the opportunity for unlikely alliances—think Tea-Party-meets-farm-subsidy-reform-advocates—to succeed.
It is very hard to look into a crystal ball and predict how the budget factors will play out. While it might seem to make sense to wait for budget action—either through sequestration or through another mechanism—before writing the next farm bill, the longer the Committees wait, the more chances there are for Congress to cut agriculture spending and for there to be less money available to fund a new farm bill.
Senate Agriculture Committee
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Stabenow has been widely quoted as saying that the Senate farm bill process will build upon the proposal that the Chairs and Ranking Members pieced together for the failed Super Committee process. From what we know about that proposal, certain areas of the bill—such as the commodity title—were left in an unsatisfactory state last fall. The proposal also did not include important no-cost policy changes to several titles of the bill that are usually part of the farm bill reauthorization process. While the proposal did provide a budget framework for the farm bill, areas of unresolved differences mean that there is still a chunk of work to do before there is a full farm bill proposal for the Committees to consider.
Earlier this week, Chairwoman Stabenow announced four farm bill hearings for February and March—both signaling her commitment to getting a bill done this year and adding credence to the notion that the Senate will move before the House on farm bill.
House Agriculture Committee
While Chairwoman Stabenow has been vocal about her farm bill plans, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) has been more reserved. Last year, Chairman Lucas held a series of farm bill hearings intended to educate the many freshmen and new-comers to his Committee about the issues and process involved in a farm bill reauthorization. He has not yet announced any farm bill hearings in 2012 and has not indicated recently whether the farm bill proposal prepared for the Super Committee will be his starting point.
Farm and Commodity Groups Meet
This week the major farm and commodity groups and associations met together to try to hammer out something closer to a unified position on the farm bill debate. By most accounts they did not succeed with respect to specifics, but they did issue a unity statement that emphasized the importance of moving the farm bill this year. The statement issued at the end of the meeting said, in part:
“Also confirmed is our common belief that Congress should pass and the president should sign a strong new farm bill into law this year. The law expires at the end of this year and producers—like all job creators—need certainty from Washington.”
At its own annual meeting in January, NSAC member organizations also supported an urgent call to Congress to pass the farm bill this year, without delay.
More to Follow
Stay tuned for our next post in this ongoing series, which will dive deeper into both the process and substance of the new farm bill.
For more information, click here.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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