No More Games of Kick the Can

April 01,2012
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March temperatures may be warming up across most of the country, but in Washington, things are cooling down. This isn’t a weather report; it’s a blunt assessment of the pace of action on Capitol Hill.

It’s a well-documented fact that the legislative process, which normally moves about as fast as a turtle, is slower still in election years. And this year is no exception. If anything, expectations in 2012 for any substantive action are even lower, given the partisan gridlock affecting both chambers of Congress.

That’s why the National Milk Producers Federation Board of Directors made a strong statement earlier this month when it adopted a resolution urging Congress to pass a Farm Bill this year.

The resolution, passed unanimously by the NMPF Board at its spring meeting, made it clear that the organization does not support any approach in Congress that would extend current farm programs by another year, and delay the creation of a better dairy program. I’ve spent a great deal of time in the past two years, in this space and in other forums, talking about why a better safety net is needed for dairy farmers. So I won’t belabor the point that the status quo is not an option.

But what some may not understand is that even if all that Congress has the energy to do is enact a simple, one-year extension of the current Farm Bill, getting that done is no small feat. There are more than three dozen programs in the current legislation that will have no funding baseline after Sept. 30, 2012. What that means is that even if they are extended for another year, new money will have to be found – somehow, somewhere – to continue paying for them. The status quo for another 12 months is not the financial and political slam dunk that some may assume.

Thus, our message to the House and Senate leadership, as well as to the White House, is that if hard choices need to be made this summer, why not make them in pursuit of something big, and not something small? What’s the point in buying just a little extra time, only to return to town in 2013 facing the same challenges – and in all likelihood, even harsher ones, given the shaky state of the federal budget?

It appears Congress is already putting off hard decisions until after the November elections on the really big headache issues pertaining to tax rates, spending cuts, and the overall effort to reduce the cavernous budget deficit. Whoever comes to Washington in 2013, either as a freshman or a returning incumbent, will have his or her plate full with tough, unenviable choices.

Unfortunately, delaying until tomorrow what should be decided today has become the standard operating procedure for many elected officials, in municipalities and state capitols, as well as in Washington. When there are few good options, a game of duck and delay is better than the alternative of angering a variety of constituencies. But inaction has harmful consequences of its own.

This year for dairy farmers – at least in the first few months of it – is shaping up to be a time in which having a margin insurance program and a market stabilization mechanism would have been very useful. Some of the hard-earned equity that farmers have clawed back after 2009 is at risk yet again because of the downturn in milk prices, and uptick in feed costs. A better approach is needed, sooner rather than later.

Perhaps members of Congress will prefer to kick the proverbial can down the road and postpone any action on farm policy until 2013, but dairy farmers can’t afford to play that game.