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Unfinished business in Washington

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 11:18 a.m. CDT

During the tugs of war that crop up in Washington during political debates and policymaking, it’s not surprising the act of legislating has often been compared to the art of sausage making.  The give-and-take that has long characterized the legislative meat grinder on Capitol Hill has been put on the chopping block.

Consider an analogy attributed long ago to George Washington. He compared the bicameral functions of the upper and lower chambers of Congress to a cooling saucer and hot coffee.  America’s first president suggested the Senate “cools” legislation passed by the more tumultuous House of Representatives. 

Skip ahead two centuries and regrettably, heated tempers were not allowed to cool in the deliberative senatorial saucer during a recent rule change in the U.S. Senate.  Instead of cooling his heels, the Majority Leader booted the institutional traditions and decorum associated with the upper chamber of Congress.  His cavalier power grab leaves a stain on the world’s greatest deliberative governing body, weakening its tradition for civility and consensus.

Despite the discouraging setback that meddles with the constitutional principles of the Senate’s advice and consent authority, important legislative and oversight work continues  as we near the end of the calendar year.  Unfinished business includes the budget blueprint and the farm and food bill. 

Working under the shadow of a $17 trillion national debt, lawmakers need to come to grips with the fact that Washington cannot tax-and-spend its way to prosperity.  As a member of the budget conference tasked with a Dec. 13 deadline, I want the committee to reach an agreement that will set spending parameters for the federal government through the next fiscal year.  So far, big spenders keep trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole, hooked on a utopian mindset that Big Government can solve all our problems.  Just look where that’s gotten us:  unsustainable spending, broken promises and a cynical American public.

Washington also keeps kicking the can down the road on the farm and food bill. Rural America, the nation’s food producers and the taxpaying public deserve better, long-term certainty than yet another short-term extension.  This important piece of public policy sets into place farm and nutrition safety nets, conservation incentives and rural development programs.  A big sticking point hinges on how much savings to extract from the food stamp program.  All sides agree enrollment has soared.  The expiring farm and food bill spent 80 percent of its budget on nutrition programs, including food stamps.  In September, 15 percent of the population, or about 47 million Americans, received food stamp benefits. 

On the farm side of the spending ledger, I’m championing payment caps that limit how much individual farmers may receive per year.  I’m also working to maintain support for closing a loophole that exploits the taxpaying public.  Currently, general partnerships and joint ventures may qualify for farm payments using “active personal management” guidelines that allow hundreds of millions of tax dollars to flow though this loophole.  The provisions I authored would allow only one off-farm manager to address the abusive practice of multiple non-farming individuals receiving payments without having a significant role in farm management.  It’s time to put teeth into the law to keep our farm safety net defensible in an era that calls for serious belt-tightening across-the-board.

If Congress fails to reach an agreement on the farm and food bill, consumers could experience serious sticker shock in January.  Prices for milk could double if current commodity programs expire.  That’s because the underlying permanent farm law would trigger the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set the floor price for milk at about $39 per 100 pounds.  Although I’m not serving on the conference committee hammering out the details on a final bill, I’m riding herd on lawmakers to keep the reforms in place that were in both the House- and Senate-passed bills.  It’s time to give farmers the certainty they need to make business decisions for the year ahead.

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