The following editorial appeared recently in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Congress left town to campaign for re-election without passing a new farm bill, the massive five-year collection of agricultural subsidies and incentives that includes everything from price supports for milk to food stamps.
The old law expired Sept. 30, and, piece by piece, its programs are ending. The first to go: the Milk Income Loss Contract, which helps small dairy farmers when prices fall. Most Wisconsin dairy farmers rely on it.
It shouldn't have come to this, but reformers on both sides of the aisle have a point when they argue that both of the bills under consideration are deeply flawed.
Action is needed by the end of the year to avoid reverting to the 1949 law, which, because of its outdated support system, would send food prices soaring. What's needed is a comprehensive bill that reforms ag subsidies and protects family farms.
The Senate's version, passed in June, cut farm spending by $23.1 billion over 10 years. In the House, the Agriculture Committee agreed to $35.1 billion in cuts, but there weren't enough votes to bring that bill to the floor.
Both bills end the wasteful practice of making direct payments to farmers whether they need them or not, but they also leave unchanged large parts of the wasteful farm-subsidy program. And the bills expand crop insurance far beyond what is needed, ensuring guaranteed profits and more business for insurance companies.
And talk about government waste: Target prices for commodities are back — potentially locking in the current high prices farmers have been enjoying and costing the government far more than is reasonable.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., is right to fight the crop insurance giveaway. "It's a classic case of socializing the losses and privatizing the gains," he said.
Another concern is food stamps. Long a part of the farm bill, the House bill would cut $16.1 billion out of the program while the Senate version would cut $4 billion. Any program can be tightened, but big cuts to food stamps make no sense with so many people still out of work.
Any new bill needs some sort of support system for small dairy farmers. In Wisconsin, about 12,000 dairy farmers rely on the MILC program. They probably can hold on without MILC for awhile; prices are relatively high. But MILC or some similar program is needed if the government still believes, as it should, that there is value in family farms.
Congress should preserve programs that work and plow under those that do not. As with so many other questions, Congress has to find its center of gravity and get this hard work done.