The Agriculture Act of 2014 “is in place,” following several years of struggle, numerous versions, several setbacks and an often rancorous atmosphere in Congress that defied compromise.
But the battle is not over, says retired U.S. Congressman and former Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest.
Combest, now with Combest, Sell and Associates, speaking at the recent Texas Ag Forum in Austin, said despite the hard-won victory of passing a farm program with an adequate safety net, challenges remain to keep it intact.
“We will have to fight to keep the bill every year,” Combest said. “The Environmental Working Group, now that they have gotten rid of direct payments, will target crop insurance. Appropriations bills will be fought,” he added. “We also face over-regulation, which may be the most critical factor.”
He encouraged farmers and their association representatives to “take a breather, but stay involved.”
Combest, a Republican, noted that opposition to the bill and continued calls for further cuts, will come from all sides. “I have been extremely frustrated with the way people make decisions in Washington,” he said.
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“I have been frustrated with some of my former colleagues. It really upset me, the tactics used by far right wing groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth.”
He said the bill offered $24 billion in savings “and they wouldn’t vote for it.” He said Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R- Okla.) took some heat from right-wing legislators. “And young legislators were looking over their shoulders at the possibility of Tea Party challengers. It’s time to grow up. So many were close-minded.”
Combest said he and others took every argument legislators could muster to oppose the bill and “tore apart every argument they had not to vote for it. And they still voted against it. It’s a battle we will have to keep fighting.”
He said the political dynamics that surrounded debate on this farm bill were difficult. The process began as early as 2010 with hearings across the country. Budget concerns and failures resulted in formation of a “super committee” formed to develop a compromise budget that had eluded House and Senate Republicans and Democrats for months.
Each committee was charged with submitting a bill that would cut the budget, Combest said. “The only committee to come up with a reduction plan was agriculture. They came up with a basic plan that would have saved money. The policies were not perfect but given the conditions and timing were reasonable across all areas of agriculture and would have been workable.” The super committee failed and the ag proposal was scrapped.
Combest said in 2012 he “felt confident” that a new bill would be forthcoming. “But the Senate bill was dramatically different. They said the final bill would be written in conference.”
The House did not act until 2013 and then voted down one bill last spring and then split nutrition and commodity titles to gain enough support to pass a commodity title in the House. The two titles were reunited in conference and finally passed in February.
Combest said compromise was a difficult goal. “Everyone understands that politics is parochial. Politicians look after their constituents’ interests. But there comes a time when we have to understand that to keep your constituents happy you have to make other politicians’ constituents happy too.”
He said agriculture interests were fragmented as well. “Ag interests began to separate, more so than during any farm bill in a long time.” A lot of that fragmentation, he said, came from the Midwest where farm practices are not the same as they are in the South, and particularly in the arid Southwest.
“The goal is to develop a farm bill umbrella that everyone can get under. This time, groups began to separate and that was not helpful.”
He added that efforts from Texas A&M in developing data about the costs and benefits of various program options were critical. “Without the data from A&M it would have been extremely difficult,” he said. “Many people have no idea of the impact of these analyses.”
He said thorough analysis gets around the possibility of leaders telling people just what they want to hear instead of “what they need. Joe Outlaw (Texas AgriLife economist) and others provided the facts.” He said the analyses allowed producers to consider: “If I do this what will the result be?”
Combest also praised commodity associations for their patience and support.
“And I was extremely pleased with Secretary Vilsack’s leadership throughout the farm bill process. I can’t give enough credit to the Secretary and his staff.”
He encouraged farm groups to begin coalescing again, developing the typical united front that’s common with farm program debates and also to be patient with the Farm Service Agency as it completes the task of writing the rules necessary to implement the new farm program.
“I understand the challenge facing FSA. Farm bill meetings have been helpful and got people thinking and answered some of their questions.”
A lot more questions remain and a lot more work will be required to implement the program. And continued vigilance may be necessary to keep it.