A miracle occurred on the second day of summer in the U.S. Senate chambers.
Sixty-four senators agreed on a five-year Farm Bill that would make modest spending reductions while increasing accountability and preserving safety nets for small ag producers and low-income households. Montana's two Democratic senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester, and Wyoming's two Republican senators, Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, all supported the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012.
The bill would spend about $500 billion over five years. However, it makes changes that would cut spending by $23 billion compared to present law. Some of the changes are designed to weed out abuse and fraud in food programs.
Other changes would direct farm assistance away from wealthy recipients who don't actually work on farms or ranches. Importantly for Montana, Baucus ensured that the Senate bill preserves import protections for U.S. sugar producers. Baucus, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, also added an amendment doubling spending to $200 million address the pine bark beetle infestation that is devastating Western forests.
Among about 300 proposed amendments that didn't make the final Senate bill was Tester's effort to improve hunting and fishing habitat and hunter-angler access to public lands.
"The Farm Bill is Montana's jobs bill," Baucus said last week. "One out of every five workers in Montana gets their paycheck because of agriculture, and today is a victory for them. It's also a victory for the American taxpayers because the Farm Bill we passed cuts our deficits by $23 billion. Now it's time for the House to act so we can give farmers and ranchers the certainty they need."
The House Agriculture Committee has delayed work on its Farm Bill until after the week of Independence Day vacation Congress will take. Last week, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said his committee would meet July 11 to vote on a version of the bill. Lucas' committee and the full House don't have much time to get a Farm Bill done. Congress usually leaves Washington around Aug. 1 for an extended vacation that lasts until after Labor Day. The present Farm Bill expires Sept. 30.
The importance of getting a good Farm Bill enacted this summer cannot be overstated. However, the Senate's bipartisan success also inspires hope that such constructive compromise may be applied to larger looming issues.
The Senate Farm Bill includes a request asking the Pentagon and the Office of Management and Budget for specifics on how the executive branch will implement the big budget cuts that will automatically occur in January under legislation Congress passed last summer. That request itself is a compromise between Republicans who wanted to highlight details of defense cuts and Democrats who wanted to point out domestic cuts.
"This is a good precedent of starting to reduce the deficit in a way where both political parties are working together," Baucus told reporters after the Farm Bill vote.
The June 21 Senate Farm Bill vote shows what can be accomplished when lawmakers work together for the good of the nation. Now the House must act -- the sooner the better -- so agriculture producers and the millions of Americans depending on food stamps will know what the rules will be after Sept. 30.