After causing a shutdown and threatening the nation's creditworthiness, Congress seems to be unable to get anything done these days.
But there is hope that Congress could soon pass a major piece of legislation: the farm bill, a far-reaching piece of legislation that is renewed about every five years.The House and Senate will meet this week to work out the differences in their respective farm bills, an encouraging step at a time when gridlock is the norm.
Despite the name, the farm bill affects far more than the small population of Americans who work as farmers or ranchers. Below is a rundown of who should care about the outcome of the latest farm bill.
Changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation's food stamp program, will likely be the biggest stumbling block in the farm bill negotiations. Around 80 percent of all farm and food stamp spending goes to SNAP, according to the Associated Press. The House version of the bill would cut nearly $40 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years, a provision that President Obama has vowed to veto. The Democratic-led Senate's bill, meanwhile, includes cuts of roughly $4.5 billion.
Though the House had proposed a bill that split out food stamp funding, some groups argued for keeping SNAP in, partly because SNAP draws the attention of even big-city lawmakers.
"From our perspective, when you're doing a farm bill and you've got the nutrition title in there, you've got it worked out in a fashion that typically will help bring in urban, suburban votes," says Dale Moore, executive director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau, a farm advocacy organization.
This means rural farmers who might not even know anyone on food stamps are also closely watching to see what happens with the SNAP program.
"My first concern is they're going to be too far apart on nutrition," says Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.
If the farm bill is not passed, decades-old milk price supports dating back to 1949 will expire. That would force the government to buy milk at prices far higher than market price, which could push the price per gallon of milk at the supermarket from $6 to $8 a gallon. If the worry seems familiar, that's because it is. At the end of 2012, in what some dubbed the "dairy cliff," the price of milk likewise threatened to skyrocket without congressional action.
With the expiration of the farm bill at the beginning of October came the expiration of the Livestock Indemnity Program, a program that compensates farmers when livestock are killed in natural disasters. That hurts farmers whose herds can easily fall victim to catastrophes, like the early-October blizzard that killed tens of thousands of cattle in the northern plains.
Congress can't stop events like that from happening, but it can help farmers bounce back after such a crippling loss. The South Dakota disaster cut beef supply, which could mean higher meat prices. Helping farmers stick around after losing large swaths of their herds could help them again boost their supply in the future.
In the complex mix of farm bill programs, both the House and Senate have found one place where they can agree: direct payments. These $5 billion in subsidy payments are sent to farmers every year, regardless of whether it was a boom or bust year for yields. Both the House and Senate bills include provisions to end these payments, and even some groups that speak on behalf of farmers support ending the program.
"You can't justify getting a check from the government when you have a pretty good crop. You can't wash that out with consumers or elected officials," says Peterson.
It goes without saying that while steak prices might go up a little after a drought or blizzard, the ranchers who lose their livelihoods are the ones who feel that pain more. An extension of the Livestock Indemnity Program is just one example of the safeguards the farm bill contains. Though they'll likely lose direct payments under whatever compromise bill is passed, farmers could still see some boosts to other parts of the safety net for bad years.
Both the house and Senate bills would increase crop insurance subsidies for farmers and lower the target prices for "counter-cyclical" payments – subsidies paid if prices drop below a certain level.
"We know the elimination of [direct payments] is going to go to deficit reduction. We understand that because getting our fiscal house in order is important," says Moore "At the same time, we also appreciate that both committees took steps to use some of that money to reinvest in updating [and] adjusting other features on the safety net side of the equation."