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Saturday, Oct 26 2013 11:00 PM

Hey, House: Get busy and pass a farm bill

By The Bakersfield Californian

For a group that claims to be pro-business, pro-growth and pro-economic responsibility, the tea party faction of the Republican Party is certainly proving to be ... not.

The 16-day government shutdown, which a sizable majority of Americans pin on the tea party, trimmed 0.6 percentage points from U.S. fourth-quarter growth -- a big number when one considers that annualized growth is only 2 percent to start with.

That self-inflicted mini-slump got the attention of influential business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, which are pondering sponsorship of 2014 intra-party challenges to tea party office-holders -- or, as the president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors calls them, "the Taliban minority."

The tea party's next anti-business move could become apparent this week when Congress again takes up the farm bill. That legislation, which coordinates and regulates much more than just U.S. agriculture, expired on Sept. 30. The Senate had passed a bipartisan renewal of the legislation by a 68-32 vote but it was stalled by House Republicans who demanded cuts in food stamps -- even deeper than what the Senate had authorized.

With no farm bill in place, programs that promote the sale of U.S. farm commodities overseas will shut down when their funding runs out. Export support programs such as the Market Access Program will go dormant, potentially affecting foreign sales arrangements both existing and proposed. That will hit no state harder than California, which sold nearly $17 billion in agricultural products to foreign buyers in 2011.

Universities like UC Davis that use research grants supported by the farm bill to help increase crop yields and improve harvest and conservation practices will find themselves stranded.

The House's prolonged failure to reach a deal, extended much longer, will hurt domestic consumers too. For example, milk prices will more than double because price supports will revert to 1949 levels -- which, adjusted to 2013 dollars, puts the price somewhere above $6 a gallon. Then there is the plethora of small programs that help the hungry, such as the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, a cost-effective stratagem that provides fresh fruit and vegetable coupons to low-income seniors -- but now finds itself unfunded.

The main event here, the fight over food stamps, is based on assumptions that are largely groundless. The House voted last month to cut $40 billion over 10 years from the program, dwarfing the Senate's proposed $4.5 billion reduction. We get it: The food stamp budget has doubled since the Great Recession's low point in 2007, with the number of recipients going from 26 million that year to 47 million in 2012.

The House's $40 billion bite into food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, would hurt many truly needy families, primarily -- as the Congressional Budget Office reports -- children, the disabled and people past the age of 60.

The CBO notes that the huge increase in recipients is primarily due to the near-unprecedented economic crisis of 2007-08 -- and that the cost of the food stamp program is projected to fall as the recovery continues. Those findings mirror a Harvard study that found that the sharp increase in U.S. unemployment, along with a relaxation of some states' eligibility rules, were the biggest factors in the SNAP surge, not a new generation of emboldened slackers.

For all of these reasons, House Republicans need to come to the table and produce an economically responsible but compassionate farm bill. Here's a bonus reason: The Senate will never sign on to a farm bill program that decimates food stamps to the tune of $40 billion, and the president will never sign it. Drafting a reasonable House farm bill, therefore, represents pragmatism, a trait that has been in short supply lately.

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