The signs are there. We've been told for some time now to ignore the warnings of doom, but the evidence continues to point toward an oncoming cataclysm that will forever change things.
I'm talking not about the Mayan calendar, but about the federal farm bill and the potential impact the failure to pass this legislation will have on rural America.
For most Americans, this debate about farm policy has been an afterthought centered on subsidizing “Big Ag” and food stamps. While food assistance is the largest part of the bill, and the act's first title deals with farm supports, the farm bill itself is much more.
From rural development to research to conservation, the farm bill deals with more than farm payments and food stamps. Programs to help rural communities with infrastructure, dollars for continued research into agriculture production and efforts to protect natural resources like soil, water and air will all be at risk if the U.S. House of Representatives continues its current path of inaction on this bill. What's even more troubling is that it's not a partisan issue.
Starting last year, the leadership of the Senate and House agriculture committees, including Oklahoma's own U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, started working on a bill that helped rural America while reducing anywhere from $25 billion to $35 billion in federal spending. One version passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote; another cleared the House Agriculture Committee with support from Republicans and Democrats. Then House leadership decided to spike this bill — even though indications showed most House members supporting action on the measure. Now Speaker John Boehner has said he even opposes including this bill as part of any compromise fiscal cliff legislation, even though federal reductions will be needed to balance the budget and agriculture has agreed to cut itself significantly.
In the meantime, the drought continues. The conservation provisions of this bill are desperately needed if we're going to continue to hold back the ravages of soil erosion. We've yet to see dust storms like those in the 1930s, largely because of the work done by farmers and ranchers using farm bill conservation programs. We've seen smaller storms, however, including those in northern Oklahoma and Lubbock, Texas, that resulted in closed interstates and highway fatalities. If this drought continues and if we fail to reauthorize these programs, this will only get worse.
The House and Senate agriculture committees have offered up legislation that supports rural America while reducing the size of government. Who else has done this? Just agriculture. We're willing to do our part to save money while keeping rural America running. Unfortunately, some in Congress can't take yes for an answer.
So while the calendar turns and we face an uncertain new year, we're left asking Congress this: Will you take us over the cliff or will you do what's right and pass the farm bill?
Pope is executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.