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July 10, 2012 8:07 am

EDITORIAL: Congress must work together to pass farm bill

Written by Tessa Schweigert

While farmers in the Powell Valley work long days and prepare for the harvest, politicians in D.C. are working toward a long-term farm bill as a September deadline looms.

The current farm bill expires Sept. 30, and we’re hopeful Republicans and Democrats in Congress can reach a compromise before then.

By setting America’s agricultural policies, the farm bill is far-reaching legislation, encompassing commodity support, nutrition, foreign food aid, rural development, energy and forestry programs. This legislation affects a wide range of Americans — from our local farmers planting sugar beets to millions across the nation who depend on food stamps.

Last month, it was encouraging to see a bipartisan effort in the Senate to pass a five-year farm bill that transforms farm subsidy programs and would save $23 billion over 10 years.

After clearing the Senate, the farm bill now undergoes scrutiny in the U.S. House, where the Agriculture Committee is set to begin voting on it Wednesday. Republicans and Democrats are likely to clash over proposed cuts to food stamps, potentially stalling the farm bill.

Because this complicated and expensive legislation comes during an election year, we worry lawmakers may fail to reach an immediate compromise. Their timeframe is limited.

Congress recesses for the month of August. When lawmakers return after Labor Day, they will have only a few weeks to pass the farm bill before its Sept. 30 expiration date.

They could always pass an extension of the current bill, but U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently warned that failure to act will impact livestock producers and farmers. Federal livestock disaster programs ended last September. If the current farm bill is extended because Congress is unable to pass a new law, those programs would not be renewed, according to The Associated Press. Vilsack is concerned about what that could mean for those of us in the West facing fires and others dealing with drought in the Midwest.

The farm bill “just needs to get done, and there’s no excuse for it not to be done,” he told the AP.

Leaders in Congress have also stressed the importance of acting on the farm bill before the September deadline.

By failing to pass it, “we jeopardize one of the economic bright spots of our nation’s fragile economy,” said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who serves as the Agriculture Committee’s chairman.

His counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the bill “represents the most significant reform of American agriculture policy in decades.”

The Senate’s version of the bill includes language written by Wyoming’s Sen. Mike Enzi to authorize resources for a competitive grant program to help researchers combat livestock diseases, such as brucellosis.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill leave intact the federal sugar program, which limits how much sugar can be stored or imported. That’s good news for Wyoming sugar growers.

However, it’s possible that could change.

“We’re anticipating some attacks again in the House,” said Ric Rodriguez, a Heart Mountain sugar beet grower who also is vice president of the Western Sugar Cooperative board of directors.

Opposition is likely from consumer groups and food and beverage companies that use sugar, who say the program drives up costs and leads to confectioners relocating overseas.

Given its significant impacts to agriculture policy and the millions of Americans it affects, we urge Republicans and Democrats to work together toward a successful farm bill. Americans want to see that Congress can cultivate compromise, even in this political climate.

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