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Published November 26, 2012, 10:04 AM

Farming at the 'fiscal cliff'

Prompt passage of a farm bill is essential.

By: Tom Dennis, Forum Communications

It’s true that the “fiscal cliff” looms, and that action on the farm bill may have to wait until Washington steers away from the edge.

As Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report told Forum Communications, “I don’t know how they pass anything that deals with revenue without dealing with the fiscal cliff.”

But it’s also true that passing the farm bill would provide a side benefit that other efforts would not. That’s because it would be a huge bipartisan achievement — and getting to “yes” on this issue would boost the odds of both sides agreeing to a budget deal.

Plus, passing a farm bill is simply the right thing to do. In the spring, the Senate passed its version of the farm bill by a bipartisan supermajority vote, 64-35.

It was a spectacular agreement in a Senate that was split down the middle on almost everything else.

Just as impressive was the House Agriculture Committee’s 35-11 vote in support of its own farm bill. Remember, Republicans control the House, which means Republicans control the House Agriculture Committee, too. So, the committee’s bipartisan supermajority support also counts as an exceptional achievement — and it renders all the more small-minded the House leadership’s refusal to let the bill come to the floor for a vote.

Then there’s the fact that on Nov. 13, a coalition of 235 farming, ranching and conservation groups sent a letter to House leaders asking them to pass a farm bill. The groups range from the National Farmers Union to the American Forests Foundation to the Independent Community Bankers of America; as one farm-news source headlined its story, “Nearly all of ag wants farm bill action.”

Last but not least, prompt passage is vital because next year brings no guarantees. The congressional coalitions that put together the bills could fall apart. Even more likely, the bills could get hammered in the coming deficit-reduction effort and emerge much reduced.

As Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., told The Associated Press, “Time is not on our side. … It’s infinitely better for everyone to get these decisions made now.”

Kevin Cramer, North Dakota’s representative-elect, can and should play a role. Cramer doesn’t take office until January, so he won’t have a vote in the lame-duck Congress that meets between now and then. But he will have influence.

As a conservative and a new member of the House Republican caucus, he’ll have the GOP leadership’s ear. And, as the incoming representative from North Dakota — the state with the healthiest economy in America — he’ll have his fellow representatives’ attention in a way freshmen seldom do.

He should use this status to call for a farm bill agreement.

Conrad, for his part, “said he spent part of Congress’ election recess consulting with Senate and House aides who worked on the legislation,” The AP reported.

“Conrad said he has attempted to ‘take some sort of reasonable difference’ between the House and Senate bills, but would not provide details.” If Cramer as well as Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., support Conrad’s efforts, that would go a long way toward getting a farm bill passed — and, very possibly, toward averting the fiscal cliff after that.

Editor’s Note: This editorial is from Forum Communications, which owns Agweek.