Sept. 09--Like many metro-east farmers, Ken Hartman worries whether the U.S. Congress will pass a new farm bill before the current one expires Sept. 30.
Congress' failure to pass a new bill throws into question the availability of federally subsidized crop insurance -- a key issue for Midwest farmers seeking to recover from one of the worst droughts in memory.
"The problem that I foresee is if you come into this fall and you don't have a farm bill, you don't have any guarantee for crop insurance," said Hartman, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on a farm south of Waterloo.
The lack of a crop insurance guarantee means that farmers will have a tougher time borrowing money from banks this autumn to finance spring planting, Hartman said.
Bankers aren't going "to be too thrilled about loaning you some money if there isn't some way that backs you as far as paying your operating loan back," he said.
Frustration over the U.S. Congress' failure to pass a farm bill has led the major party nominees for the 12th U.S. Congressional District seat, in a rare moment of agreement, to call on federal lawmakers to pass it as soon as possible when Congress reconvenes Monday.
Bill Enyart, the Democratic nominee for the 12th District seat, noted the Republican-led Congress has voted 33 times to repeal President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, even though the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in late June. Meanwhile, the farm bill remains stuck in neutral.
"The political posturing that has gone on is just absolutely nonproductive," Enyart said.
If another major drought strikes next year, or floods occur, and crop insurance is not available, "We would be bankrupting farmers and putting the food production of this nation at serious risk," he said.
Jason Plummer, the GOP nominee for the 12th District, said farmers are asking for "risk mitigation tools; they're looking for a safety net for situations like this year. That's what we need to make sure we provide them."
Plummer called on Congress to provide a long-term solution.
"This is not a 12-month thing we need to fix," he said. "We need to give them some long-term certainty on taxes, on regulation, on the farm bill. We need a farm bill. We need it now."
Enyart and Plummer are facing Paula Bradshaw, the Green Party nominee, in the Nov. 6 election to replace U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville. Costello is retiring after 24 years in office.
Bradshaw said the impasse over the farm bill only further fuels her amazement "at the inability of Congress to face reality."
For Bradshaw, that reality centers on an increasingly warmer planet caused by the burning of fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in the abnormally high temperatures and drought-like conditions of this summer.
Bradshaw said she wants a farm bill that "comes to grips with the fact that climate change is going to make it more and more difficult to grow food and we have to address that."
Bradshaw called for a farm bill that gives price supports to farmers, that sets aside marginal land for trees and that promotes hemp farming.
The 12th District encompasses a dozen counties stretching south from Alton and ending at Cairo, in the state's southern tip.
Rodney Davis, the GOP nominee for the 13th Congressional District seat, called the failure to pass the bill "a dereliction of duty of Republicans and Democrats."
The failure to pass the bill shows that "right now Washington's too polarized and the American public continues to believe that," Davis said. "They just don't think Democrats and Republicans are making any progress."
Dr. David Gill, the 13th District Democratic nominee, could not be reached for comment.
But in an interview in July with a Normal public radio station, Gill argued against the House bill's proposed multibillion-dollar cut in food stamps expenditures. There is "a lot of hunger in this congressional district" and that the proposed food stamp cuts are "not who we are as a people," Gill said.
Gill, though, agreed with Davis that Congress must act immediately to renew the farm bill because the crop insurance program is a critical part of the "safety net" for farmers.
The newly configured 13th District runs from Madison County and includes Collinsville, Maryville, and Edwardsville, as well as parts of 13 other counties running northeast toward Champaign.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has told him he plans to put the latest version of the farm bill to a House vote later this month.
"Now he wasn't sure what that would look like. Whether it'd be a long-term bill, which we talked about a five-year bill, which is what my producers want, or a shorter term," Shimkus said, recounting a conversation with Boehner when the House speaker attended a Plummer fundraiser last month in Fairview Heights.
One of the major hurdles preventing a vote on the current farm bill is a dispute between liberal and conservative lawmakers over how much of $35 billion in planned agriculture cuts over the next decade are coming out of federal food aid programs.
The most recent proposal passed by House Republicans aims to reform the nation's food stamp program by slowing its growth and preventing fraud, Shimkus said.
The food stamp program "has been used to buy off liberal votes to pass the farm bill for decades. You just keep adding more to that program," Shimkus said. "But now we're in a fiscally more conscious time."
The logjam over the next farm bill is forcing federal lawmakers to face some tough choices. Tasked with slashing the federal budget, they are also confronting the fact that demand for food stamps has soared nationwide after four years of high unemployment and slow economic recovery.
The latest version of the farm bill passed by the Senate calls for about $960 billion spent over the next decade on a wide variety of line items, including crop subsidies, plant research and conservation programs. But the lion's share -- 80 percent -- is allocated to food stamps, or its official name, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as S.N.A.P., according to published reports.
So if 80 percent of the U.S. Agriculture Department's budget consists of food and nutrition programs, "then a large portion of that money has to come somehow out of the food and nutrition budget of the USDA," Shimkus said.
Congressional reform efforts to reform S.N.A.P. include putting photo IDs on food stamp cards, so that they're not sold "for cash, then the cash used to buy drugs and alcohol," he said.
Another sticking point preventing passage of the farm bill centers on conservatives' efforts to end direct payments to farmers, Shimkus said.
"So if you got the real liberals mad about food stamps, and you got the real conservatives concerned about subsidies to the ag community," Shimkus said, "that's why Speaker Boehner doesn't know if he can pass this bill if it gets to the floor."
Meanwhile, farmers he's talked to are hopeful a farm bill will be passed to ensure that crop insurance becomes available to them soon, according to Shimkus.
"They've done everything that they can do right. They aren't blaming anybody. They're not crying," he said. "They just want to be in a position to go back in the fields next spring."
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 239-2533.
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