When the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 expires Monday, the nation will revert to the Agricultural Act of 1949 as the last permanent farm legislation.
"The nation will see farm policy dictated by guidelines put in place more than six decades ago," said Linfield College Professor Eric Schuck.
Pushing the decision down the road, Congress didn't schedule a vote, allowing a variety of federal farm subsidies, loans and crop insurance programs to lapse. The lack of resolution on the bill also means farmers will not receive disaster relief to mitigate the effects of the summer drought.
Farm groups have grown increasingly frustrated by Congressional inaction, and neglect of the farm bill may be a factor in the November elections.
"Reversion to the 1949 act will be absurdly expensive for already strapped federal coffers, as crop price supports will be tied to pre-World War I era indexes," Schuck said. "Using this outdated method, the current support price for wheat will be nearly $18 a bushel, nearly twice the current price and more than four times the current government target price."
At the same time, he says, crop prices may balloon, making farm incomes even less stable than they already are.
Reverting to the 1949 act will also affect consumers and the environment, according to the Linfield College professor.
The 1949 farm bill does not include programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), which are critical for millions of families caught up in the recession. Food prices may rise, and environmental programs will be defunded, along with most soil conservation programs, leaving the U.S. ripe for dust-bowl conditions and even more devastating droughts.
"It would be diplomatic to assign blame on a bipartisan basis, but that's not exactly fair," Schuck said. "The current vacuum in leadership was due to Republican House Speaker John Boehner's unwillingness to bring the Agricultural Committee bill up for a vote. Concerned by a Tea Party revolt on his right over the farm bill's cost and Democratic opposition to nutrition assistance cuts, Boehner tried to patch the problem with an inadequate drought-relief bill. This doesn't solve the problem."
Barring a vote, Congress could have opted to extend the 2008 farm bill for one more year. An extension would have maintained coverage for current food assistance and conservation programs, avoided the cost of 1949 price supports, and given producers the stability needed to plan for the 2013 crop year. Congress may revisit the issue in the lame duck session after the election.
Schuck teaches economics at Linfield College. Located in the Pacific Northwest, Linfield is dedicated exclusively to undergraduate education, offering degrees in arts, sciences and professional programs. The small college was named one of the nation's top picks for high school counselors across the U.S. and has been nationally praised for combining affordability and excellence.
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