Sweet new farm-bill plan from Democrats: Let’s pressure the GOP by using an archaic law to double milk prices!

posted at 4:01 pm on September 13, 2013 by Erika Johnsen

We’re still waiting on the House’s version of food-stamps legislation after they split the traditional coupling of food stamps and agriculture policy into one gigantic “farm bill” earlier this summer (I’ll refer you to my Congressional-drama preview post from last week for a more complete summary of the situation), and their current plan to cut an utterly draconian $40 billion/10 years from the now almost $80 billion/year food-stamps program (read: 5 percent cut) is already drawing the highly predictable and demagogic ire from progressive groups and Democratic lawmakers.

Republicans biggest obstacle to reform, as ever, is that once their food-stamp and agriculture-policy bills go into the conference with the Senate, Senate Democrats will immediately want to pare back GOP’s suggested SNAP cuts closer to their proffered $400 million/year (a.k.a., half of one percent) — as the GOP is well aware:

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas says more “outside the box” thinking will be needed to save a farm bill this fall and he is prepared to support “bigger ideas” to get the task done.

“I may have to do a lot of things outside the box to get this final thing together, I will acknowledge that to you,” Lucas told POLITICO of upcoming talks with the Senate. “This is going to be a hard, complicated conference.”

“I’m not opposed to bigger ideas. I just want to get it done,” he said. “And right now you know how difficult it will be to make something happen from the status quo in the two bills.”

“The challenges that will confront the House and Senate, when we both get there, are so great. The positions are locked in so tight on so many issues. That to achieve a consensus that we can pass on both floors, that we get the president to sign, we may have to think outside the box.”

Hmm. As it happens, Democrats also have some “outside the box” strategizing  in mind — including getting the Agriculture Department to revive a 1949 law that requires them to manipulate the dairy market so that milk is priced at a floor of roughly $39 per 100 pounds, effectively doubling today’s prices:

The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee has launched a new strategy for passing a farm bill this year: threaten to send milk prices skyrocketing.

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said he called Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack this week suggesting that the agency begin the process of implementing the 1949-era dairy policies that would take effect Oct. 1 if Congress fails to act on a farm bill before then.

“Clearly this is not going to get done by the 1st of October, so my suggestion to the secretary is that they should start now putting the framework together to implement the permanent law on dairy Jan. 1,” Peterson said Wednesday in the Capitol. “And it sounds to me like they’re going to take a very serious look at that.”

The point here isn’t really to raise milk prices, but to spur the relevant lobbies into overtime doing what they do best — applying all kinds of completely self-interested pressure to lawmakers of all stripes in order to keep all that special treatment coming, no matter the effects on the overall economy or the federal deficit.

“[International Dairy Foods Association] IDFA is really going to hate this,” Peterson said. “And once Vilsack’s calling them and setting up the mechanism to get $39 milk, IDFA’s going to call Boehner. So, it might actually work.”

“The first thing that happens of any consequence is Jan. 1 on dairy. So if he [Vilsack] starts the process [Oct. 1], then we can be ready to have $39 milk Jan. 1,” he said. “And then I think, within two or three weeks, we’ll probably have a farm bill.

Unfortunately, the interested lobbies have proven themselves to be stupendously well-organized and well-monied when their corporate welfare is on the line, and the U.S. dairy market is a hot mess of market-distorting regulations and subsidies. That “dairy cliff” I mentioned at the end of last year on the tail of the fiscal cliff? Same drill.


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