Bob Bendick is the director of U.S. Government Relations of The Nature Conservancy.
Lost in the bad news about the failure of the Super Committee to reach agreement on a plan to reduce the nation’s budget deficit was the effort by the leadership of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees to provide a strong bi-partisan proposal on the future of U.S. Farm programs. The Chairs and Ranking Members of the Agriculture Committees agreed on legislative ideas that would cut the Farm Bill budget while continuing the effectiveness of the Farm Bill programs most important to The Nature Conservancy. In doing this the leaders of the Agriculture Committees demonstrated that, even in today’s contentious legislative environment, courage, determination and hard work can produce results that serve the broad interests of the American people. Sadly, however, the Farm Bill agreement could not move forward when the overall Budget Control Act process fell apart.
The Budget Control Act which created the Super Committee process said that House and Senate Authorizing Committees (the committees that draft the legislation that determines the direction of Federal programs) could make substantive recommendations to the Super Committee on how to reduce Federal spending over the next ten years and could put forward ideas about what program changes could best advance agency missions despite those reductions. Most of the authorizing committees did not seem to take this opportunity seriously and, in fact, submitted different recommendations from their Republican and Democratic members. Not the Agriculture Committees, where the committee leadership and their staffs worked night and day for months to hammer out a whole new Farm Bill to recommend to the Super Committee.
This proposed Farm Bill reduced spending by more than $23 billion over 10 years, thus more than meeting the target of the Budget Control Act. And the leaders also looked hard at how programs functioned and how they might be made more cost -effective. The Nature Conservancy is most interested in the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill. While a final version of the Conservation Title recommendations was not released publicly, what we saw and heard about the proposal strongly suggested that, while saving more than $6 billion over ten years, through program consolidation, moving funding around, and ensuring the ability of the Department of Agriculture to focus spending on high priority areas, the Conservation Title programs would continue to produce large scale on the ground conservation even with fewer resources. What’s more, with some certainty of funding in these uncertain times, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which administers most of the Conservation Title, would be able to plan in advance to make limited money go further.
The question now is how to move this bi-partisan agreement forward in the absence of overall debt reduction legislation. One option is to hitch it to the tax extenders bill that presumably will sort out the payroll tax and unemployment benefits before the end of this year. A second would be to use the Agriculture Committee negotiations as the basis for a new Farm Bill to be voted on early in 2012. This would allow some issues to get further discussion, but would not unravel the progress that has been made. Least desirable would be starting over with a year-long Farm Bill process that might well not produce the positive results already put within the country’s reach by the hard work of the Agriculture Committees.
If I had any real say in the matter, I’d opt for getting the Farm Bill done quickly. How can you beat saving money but being creative enough to serve both the agriculture community and the long term interests of the American people. Swift, bi-partisan action would be an example for the rest of the Congress to follow and a sign of hope that our government can get back on track.