By TIM THORNBERRY
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Despite last-minute rallies and haggling, a new farm bill is not likely to make it to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote before the November election recess.
This means the existing bill will expire on Sept. 30. That comes much to the dismay of farmers and agriculture organizations across the country, but it comes as no surprise to and despite numerous efforts to encourage a vote by a host of supportive legislators and ag leaders.
House members were unable to follow their Senate counterparts, who passed its version of the farm bill in June in a somewhat bipartisan manner, as did the House Agriculture Committee soon after. The bill now faces an uphill battle after elections are over with a lame-duck Congress.
Legislators from across the country weighed in. Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) said, “I am disappointed that partisan gridlock prevented us from voting on a farm bill before it expires. Hoosier farmers deserved a vote on the farm bill this week. Our farmers face an incredible amount of uncertainty, whether it’s from Mother Nature or market prices. It is disappointing that Congress’ inaction will now be a cause for concern, as well.”
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), ranking member of the House Ag Committee, stated on his website, “I simply can’t understand why these guys are choosing to play politics with the farm bill.”
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack pointed a few fingers as well, noting the tough year farmers have experienced.
“In a year that has brought its share of challenges to America’s farmers and ranchers, the House Republicans have added new uncertainty for rural America. Unfortunately, House Republicans left Washington without passing comprehensive, multiyear food, farm and jobs legislation, leaving thousands of farming families exposed,” Vilsack said in a statement.
“U.S. agriculture is fighting to maintain the tremendous momentum it has built over the past three years, but with natural disasters and other external forces threatening livelihoods of our farmers and ranchers, certainty is more important than ever. Americans deserve a food, farm and jobs bill that reforms the safety net for producers in times of need, promotes the biobased economy, conserves our natural resources, strengthens rural communities, promotes job growth in rural America and supports food assistance to low-income families.
“Without the certainty of a multi-year bill, rural communities are being asked to shoulder undue burdens.”
Some are expecting an extension to come during the lame-duck session, rather than a complete bill. Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) does not support that idea. She said during a teleconference Sept. 20 anything short of the full bill is something in which she is not interested.
“Just to make it very clear, we are going to do everything possible to get this done in the lame-duck session. Right now, 16 million people that work in agriculture are being left hanging by the House leadership despite the work, on a bipartisan basis, of the House Committee and the bipartisan work of the Senate,” she said. “I really am shocked that there has been no action this month before the Sept. 30 deadline, but I am absolutely committed to doing everything humanly possible on behalf of our farmers and ranchers in rural America to complete the farm bill in November or December.”
There was talk of an extension before the election recess but House Republican leadership said there were not enough votes to get that accomplished.
House Democratic leadership urged Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to cancel the recess until Congress had met its responsibilities to the American people, including passing a farm bill.
Failure to pass a bill could have some negative effects if legislation is not realized by the first of the year. Generally, a farm bill covers commodity programs on a crop/marketing-year basis, which means crops grown in 2012 and marketed in 2013 would not be affected with the expiration of the bill.
If legislation is not passed by the end of the year, however, the possibility of something known as “permanent law” taking effect becomes a real concern. According to information from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), “Permanent law primarily refers to the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agricultural Act of 1949. If no action is taken on a new farm bill by Dec. 31, 2012, some permanent law policies for the farm commodity programs would resume.”
This could happen under guidelines set more than 70 years ago, in some instances.
The dairy industry would be the first to feel the effects of the expiration.
The CRS reports, “Beginning Sept. 1, 2012, the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program is administered at reduced coverage levels. Specifically, the MILC feed cost adjuster is lowered from 45 percent of the difference between the target price and actual price, to 34 percent of this difference. Additionally, the MILC volume cap is lowered from 2.985 million pounds to 2.4 million pounds per dairy farmer.”
Some other programs have already expired, including livestock disaster assistance. The House did pass the Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2012, which was supposed to have helped with problems caused by this year’s drought. The Senate, however, did not pass that legislation.
It should also be noted this is not the first time Congress couldn’t pass a farm bill before the old one expired. Five extensions of the 2002 farm bill were passed before the current 2008 bill was agreed upon. In fact, the CRS noted over the last 40 years only two new farm bills (1973 and 1977) were passed before the Sept. 30 deadline.
At the heart of most of the debate this year is the issue of the food assistance program. It is estimated 80 percent of the cost of the farm bill goes toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The House wants deeper cuts than the Senate version allows.