Importance of a Full Five Year Farm Bill Now

December 4, 2007

Excerpt from Dec. 3 Speech by Larry Combest to USA Rice Federation

Now, I suppose it is possible, and perhaps it is even probable, that short term extensions of current law may continue to take place until the full five year Farm Bill is completed. This would certainly provide farm families with at least some peace of mind. I know folks are becoming extremely anxious, especially those in Louisiana and South Texas, but really all over the country.

So, with this backdrop, I believe it is absolutely essential that the Senate complete its work ASAP, and that Congress complete and the President sign into law a five year Farm Bill and do so as quickly as possible – if not before Christmas, then right out of the gate when Congress returns early next year.

The farmers and ranchers of this country, not to mention their lenders, need to have a strong safety net in place. But, what is more, that safety net simply must offer long-term certainty. Not one or even two years, but long-term certainty. The versions of the Farm Bill approved by the full House and by the Senate Agriculture Committee both accomplish these critically important objectives. So, put simply, ladies and gentlemen, I strongly believe that we have come too far. We have fought too hard. And victory is too close at hand to throw in the towel.

I stress this point because well beyond the merits of the Farm Bill currently pending in Congress – which strongly argue for the bill’s timely consideration and passage – is this very worrisome consideration for us to take into account: I believe that there are extreme dangers in kicking the can down the road by any significant delay in the completion and passage of a new five year Farm Bill.

Let me offer you a few reasons why.

First, there are budget considerations, not just the agriculture budget but the overall budget. Changes in the budget could very well make the ultimate crafting and passage of a five year Farm Bill – at least one that is worth anything to farmers – much harder, not easier, if Congress puts off doing its job. Why take the chance?

Second, making budget matters worse, is this consideration: imagine the Congress operating next year under what are called PAYGO rules while trying to find money to pay for endless new needs but with very limited budget resources. Now, we have identified a good deal of savings in order to balance the Farm Bill ledger. And, I can tell, if we do not pass a five year Farm Bill quickly, we are going to leave all that money on the table and it is going to look mighty inviting to those searching for ways to pay for other priorities in the federal budget. Why take the gamble?

Third, we can simply take for granted that the long knives of the critics are only going to grow longer and sharper during the period of any delay in writing a five year Farm Bill. By the looks of the editorial pages of the big city newspapers, the critics are already bitterly complaining that the sheer calumny they piled on so high and wide could not bring down the farm safety net. I for one do not care to give that crowd a second shot at tearing down the family farm. Why run the risk?

Fourth, there are a whole lot of your friends up on Capitol Hill that have spent a whole lot of capital in putting together a strong farm safety net in this Farm Bill. These folks have hunkered down and weathered a torrential downpour of unjust criticism for more than a year now in defense of U.S. farm policy – in defense of farm families across this country. Remember just a year ago when I spoke to you in Las Vegas? Amidst all the gloom and doom that was flying round at that time in Washington, I laid out a vision of a very positive outcome to this Farm Bill — and then we all went out to work to help make it happen. And, guess what, the gloom and doomers were wrong…and we were right. We are on the right path. Why snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

Finally, let me just say that political winds are more volatile, frequent, and sudden than West Texas weather. They can turn for the better. They can turn for the worse. But political winds always turn. So, I believe that what you do for a living each day is already a big enough gamble without also betting on which way the political winds will blow a year or two from now.

In fact, about the only argument I can think of that bodes in favor of kicking the can down the road on the completion of a five year Farm Bill is that it would provide for the full employment of Washington lobbyists. But, having spent a heck of a lot more time trying to make ends meet on the farm in West Texas than in this business, the farm is where my heart remains. Ladies and gentlemen, we need to hunker down and get this Farm Bill done.

Obviously, for those who are happy, or at least satisfied, with the House or Senate versions of the Farm Bill, this is all a no-brainer. But, even for those not entirely happy with either of these bills, or even both, let me submit to you this.

First, remember what the late Congressman Jamie Whitten used to tell folks: the House and Senate do not write laws. They write bills. The House-Senate conference committees write the laws. And I have tremendous faith and confidence in key members on both sides of the political aisle who will write the Farm Bill law. I served with most of them and I trust them to do the right thing.

Second, I know the worries that some have about passage of a new Farm Bill, given that there are some pretty scary amendments lurking around the Senate these days, whether on pay limits, crop insurance, or livestock issues. And some may take from all this that the devil they know is better than the devil they don’t. Some may think, let’s just hang onto current law because it is good law. But, take it from someone who has a whole lot of pride of ownership in the current law: by trying to put off battles this year – battles I believe we can and we will ultimately win – we run a dangerous risk of losing the war just down the road.

As Charlie Daniels might tell you if he were here today: Johnny did not win that gold fiddle by avoiding the devil. Johnny won that fiddle by beating the hell out of him. And that is exactly what we need to do. We are as well-positioned to win this thing as we are ever going to be. And it aint likely to be any easier down the road. So let us resolve to fight on, and let us resolve to win.

To view the entire speech (pdf), use this link.

Larry Combest was the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee when the 2002 Farm Bill was written.