Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Farm Bill and Fiscal Cliff: What Happened?

Congress avoided the looming fiscal cliff through a last-minute, temporary fix passed in the wee hours on Jan. 1, 2013. The 2001 and 2003 income tax rates will be extended for people with incomes up to $400,000 ($450,000 for couples), while those above that threshold will see an income tax increase from 35% to 39.6%. Capital gains and dividend tax rates also increase to 20%, up from the prior 15%.[i] 

Regarding the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, Congress passed a two-month delay, thereby leaving the 113th Congress with an abundance of time-sensitive new "cliffs" to tackle.

At the end of last September, 2012, Congress also passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) to ensure the continuation of most federal programming and operations until March 27th, 2013. Accordingly, the 112th Congress successfully punted to the 113th Congress, thus perpetuating the culture of fiscal uncertainty that has painfully enveloped almost all facets of federal budgetary life.  Further, because Congress has paralyzed itself with major fiscal disasters every few months for the last two years, very little other policy of note has been accomplished.  The slow-turning axle of governance has ground practically to a halt.

This "punt" culture is also evident in Congress' inability to accomplish a reauthorization of the Farm Bill, our nations food and farm policy, which historically has enjoyed broad bipartisan support.  But Congress allowed the 2008 Farm Bill to expire on Oct. 1, 2012, and included a short-term, partial extension in the Jan. 1st deal that "averted" the fiscal cliff.  Food and farm programs authorized by the farm bill are now scheduled to expire October 1st, 2013. Though many important programs that invest in just and diverse food systems have not been extended and carry no funding into this New Year, they begin the process of negotiating a bill all over again.

The fiscal cliff deal, including this flawed Farm Bill extension, was drafted by Senator Mitch McConnell and Vice President Joe Biden, despite last-minute efforts for a better Farm Bill extension by Senator Debbie Stabenow and House Representative Frank Lucas. For more on this proposed bill, read here. This current extension continues the 2008 Farm Bill, including its economically damaging direct commodity subsidies, while at the same time not funding vital programs for new farmers, minority farmers, healthy food markets, rural job programs, renewable energy, specialty crop and organic research, and organic farming.[ii]

Some have speculated that the politically charged threat of doubled milk prices (owing to the expiration of the 2008 Bill and subsequent reversion to 1930s and 40s farm law) served as the impetus to continue the unpopular and expensive direct commodity subsidies.[iii] Perhaps there is truth to this, and if so, it further epitomizes the carelessness of this last-minute extension plan. The crafters of this temporary fix ignored the bipartisan calls from Republicans, Democrats, and even the American Farm Bureau Federation, who have all called for an end to direct payments. This Farm Bill temporary extension missed an good opportunity for important deficit-reduction savings from direct payments and ceded important gains toward supporting new and minority farmers, investing in rural development  and growing local food systems - all gains as a result of expired and un-extended policy from the 2008 Farm Bill. For more about 2012 progress regarding the Farm Bill, read here.

What to do? First, plan now to attend an advocacy and training weekend April 5-8, 2013, focused on Food Justice.  Compassion, Peace, and Justice Training Day and Ecumenical Advocacy Days will be focusing on these issues and the Lobby Day, April 8, will focus on a holistic approach to Farm Bill reauthorization.  This is an important chance to weigh in with legislators and ask them to create a more "faithful" version of the legislation. To read the interfaith community's vision of principles for a faithful Farm Bill, read here.

As the Farm Bill is being drafted once again in this 113th Congress, we ask that you would be in prayer: prayer as expressed in your quiet time, and prayer in your advocacy work for a faithful Farm Bill. We encourage you to contact your legislators and advocate for a Farm Bill that abides by the principles set forth in the interfaith document.  And stay tuned for more direct action opportunities by phone and email!

As we move into this next phase of fiscal cliff and farm bill negotiations, we join in prayer for our elected officials and leaders. May they act with justice and compassion, seeking policy that invests in the general welfare and that ensures that all people have access to healthy and nutritious food.

[i] http://money.cnn.com/2013/01/01/news/economy/fiscal-cliff-senate-bill/index.html
[ii] http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/farm-bill-extension-fiscal-cliff/
[iii] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-muller/farm-bill-fiscal-cliff_b_2467971.html