Forget about the farm bill. The House GOP leadership has dropped their efforts to pass a one-year extension of farm programs under current policy, weeks after they dropped efforts to pass a Republican version of the farm bill which has passed the House Agriculture Committee. With substantial opposition on both sides to continuing a program that would deliver direct payments to farmers, something everyone wants to phase out, there was little chance that the one-year extension could pass. Instead, Republicans will try to pass a separate disaster relief bill dealing with livestock producers and their struggles with this summer’s historic drought:

The substitute will restore livestock indemnity and forage programs that have expired in the current farm program, with some assistance also for specialty crops.

To keep down costs, the aid will apply only to 2012, while offsets will come from imposing caps on two conservation programs much as the House Appropriations Committee has already proposed in its 2013 budget bill. Early estimates indicate the net savings would be about $256 million.

“My priority remains to get a five-year farm bill on the books and put those policies in place,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). “But the most pressing business before us is to provide disaster assistance to those producers impacted by the drought conditions who are currently exposed.”

The conservation offsets are also in the farm bill, but they don’t have support among Democrats. So this is not only a punt, but a downshift into a partisan bill that will have trouble passing the Senate. And it’s offensive that the norm has been furthered that relief from a natural disaster must be paid for by cuts elsewhere. This is all set up just to give rural Republican members a set of talking points as they go home for the August recess.

Meanwhile, while the drought has taken its toll on commodity prices, farmers will still probably make out OK because of several good years and the widespread adoption of crop insurance programs. The victims of the drought are largely the livestock producers, because it has sent the cost of their feed soaring. We could probably alleviate this merely by reversing the mandate that forces the production of corn ethanol, given the corn shortage.

The dangers of not passing a farm bill by September 30 and allowing all food programs to expire and revert back to obsolete 1949-era standards, on the other hand, is a serious problem, one that can only be solved by Congressional action.