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Fun and games on the Potomac

Members of Congress have departed Washington for their five-week August recess. Those five weeks should give farmers ample time to contact their congressmen and ask some of them why they have so little regard for production agriculture.

Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have said again and again that time is of the essence in getting the House and Senate-passed versions of the farm bill to a conference committee so they can hammer out a compromise bill before the extension of the current law expires on Sept. 30.

But House leaders just spent the last week trying to put together a nutrition bill that cuts nearly $40 billion out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and funding for the nation’s food banks over a 10-year period. Even a rookie politician has to know that such a bill will never pass the U.S. Senate, and, if it did, it would be vetoed by the president.

So why are House members and their leaders wasting time on such legislation? House leaders say their nutrition bill will have to be voted on when they return in September before the House will appoint members to the farm bill conference committee. That means conferees will probably have a little more than two weeks to sort through the two farm bills, resolve their differences, send the bill back to the House and Senate floor, pass it and get it signed by the president.

If, as some analysts say, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor doesn’t want a farm bill or the Republican leadership plans to shut down the government anyway, the delays and distractions of the last few days make a lot more sense. Such a strategy has never worked for the Republicans before but that doesn’t seem to be stopping them from repeating the same mistake again and again.

As members of Congress fled Washington, every major farm organization from the National Cotton Council to the American Farm Bureau was issuing statements calling on Congress to work “expeditiously” to resolve the differences and pass a farm bill and send it to the president.

When the House passed its version of the farm bill – minus food stamps – in July, it included language doing away with the so-called “permanent law” provision that has been included in every farm bill since the 1949 Agriculture Act. The provision says that if Congress fails to pass a new farm bill on time, USDA must revert to the 1949 law and begin setting Commodity Credit Corporation loan rates at a percentage of parity ($2.00 a pound for cotton and $29 per hundredweight for rice in 2009.)

Maybe some House members are confused and think that because they included the language ending the permanent law requirement in their bill that means they’ve ended the threat of the old farm bill taking effect. Those members may be about to get a big surprise.

Until they actually pass a farm bill by compromising with the Senate and getting the approval of the administration, none of those changes, including a dime’s worth of cuts to the SNAP program or food stamps, will take place. And this Congress will move a step closer to becoming known as the most useless since the founding of the Republic.

(Note: When the House Agriculture Committee-drafted farm bill came before the House in July, 62 Republican members voted against it. If you don’t know who those are, your commodity or farm organization can provide you with a list of names.)