Congress could not get its work done on time even if its own paychecks were at steak (pun intended). The last time Congress passed both a concurrent budget resolution and all required spending bills was 1996. That tidbit of nostalgia comes from David M. Walker, the former U.S. comptroller general.

The farm bill was due to be re-written in 2007 for crop years 2008-12 inclusive; Congress got around to it in 2008. Not bad, in retrospect, as it was to write new farm legislation again in 2012.

Too busily engaged in skunk shootouts – remember it was a presidential, general election year – Congress extended the law for 2013. But still dilatory, the extension expired last fall. In early January, another extension was cobbled together to avoid milk prices from doubling under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1949. That is the fallback incentive for Congress to finally do something or face the wrath of consumers when milk hits $6-$7 per gallon at the grocery store.

On Wednesday, Jan. 29, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 251-166 to pass the compromise bill worked out over the past several months. The Senate will pass it and President Obama will sign it. As is the case with this omnibus-type legislation, there is something for everyone to whine about.

First, the positives for livestock producers: The bill provides about $4 billion of disaster assistance over 10 years; an indemnity program for predator losses and freak snowstorms like the fall blizzard that hit South Dakota; a forage program for emergency feed during droughts, which will be used almost immediately; and provides that 60 percent of Environmental Quality Incentives Program funds go to livestock operations. For the first time in a farm bill, there is a 10-year baseline for livestock producers.


Perennial efforts to decouple food stamps from the farm bill have not succeeded, nor did they this time, although funding for forage assistance for humans was cut $8 billion or less than 1 percent. Congress members from every state realize that decoupling would have severe ramifications for all kinds of other legislation that requires logrolling in the forest thicket of vote trading.

The original bill passed by the House prevented USDA from enforcing the market competition provisions of the Packers and Stockyards Act. The conference report removed those handcuffs, but the issue has burned hot and cold for 30 years now and is unlikely to get much attention from USDA anyway. Is competition in the market a real issue when feeder and fed cattle prices are at record nominal highs?

The real burr under the saddle is COOL. That is not a reference to the weather this winter, but mandatory Country of Origin Labeling for meat products. The law applies to fish and poultry, too. But it has become a big bugaboo in the beef market. The farm bill leaves COOL intact. In the words of an agriculture committee staffer, "Efforts to repeal were entirely rebuffed."

That pits the U.S. beef industry against itself. This is a line at the borders with producer organizations falling into categories that were predictable given the rank atmosphere that has developed over the past couple of decades. Yes, consumer surveys indicate a preference for COOL. Follow-up surveys favor a counter label.

Under the USDA rules put in place in 2013, and sustained by the farm bill, meat would be labeled as Mexican-born and U.S. slaughtered. Or along the Northern Tier, U.S.-born calves fed in Canada and slaughtered back in the states will have to show up as such on the package label at the meat counter.

Canada and Mexico have successfully challenged the labeling law before the World Trade Organization, which ruled it is too onerous. They will challenge again and Canada has drawn up a list of retaliatory tariffs on 37 U.S. exports going north. The NAFTA trade zone is getting tied up with a beautiful bureaucratic red bow.

As L. Westminster "Plucky" Purcell noted in Another Roadside Attraction, in the final analysis "every thing comes down to the buck." Because there is a worldwide and U.S. shortage of beef cattle, which has resulted in record prices for both, and because the impending monster drought in California and elsewhere will increase that shortage, and because costs always flow down to the last purchase, it is the beef consumer who is going to pay for the added costs of labeling.

And the ONLY label they will see is the one that shows the super-lean hamburger they planned for dinner reads $5.49 a pound or more.

Now how cool is that?  end mark

Jim Gransbery

Jim Gransbery covered agriculture and politics for the Billings (Mont.) Gazette for 24 years.
His first wallow in a farm bill began in 1984.

TOP: Stock image.