Farm bill extension debate heats up

Dec 13, 2013

With 2013 almost in the history books, it appears that the likelihood of a finished farm bill is disappearing.

With the House planned recess on Friday, Dec. 13, until after the New Year, another extension became last week’s discussion on the hotly debated topic. Despite negotiating since October, the Farm Bill Conference Committee has yet to reach an agreement, instead proposing an extension through January.

Chairman Frank Lucas issued the following statement after the four principals met last Thursday to discuss outstanding issues relating to the farm bill: “We have made great progress on the farm bill and continue to have productive meetings. There are still some outstanding issues that we are addressing. I am confident we’ll work through them and finish a farm bill in January. Concurrent with our ongoing discussions this week, I will file legislation to extend the current farm bill through January to allow us to finish our work without the threat that permanent law will be implemented. Having this option on the table is the responsible thing to do in light of our tight deadline.”

Ag groups voiced concern over another extension, with some asking Congress to skip the holidays until it is resolved.

“The National Farmers Union Board of Directors calls upon the U.S. Congress to remain in Washington, D.C., until it passes, and the president signs, a comprehensive five-year farm bill into law this year. The current farm bill has been allowed to expire twice and farmers, ranchers, fishermen and rural Americans deserve the certainty of a five-year farm bill,” the group shared in a press release.

“Congress should stay in town and finish its work on behalf of the 16 million people directly employed in agriculture.”

While the Senate and House have both passed versions of a farm bill, the subsidy payment basis and nutrition assistance appear to be the hold up, according to a Purdue University professor.

“With the start of fiscal year 2014 on Oct. 1, authorization for previous farm legislation written in 2008 has already lapsed, triggering a reversion to farm subsidy laws first enacted in the mid-20th century,” said Roman Keeney, an associate professor of agricultural economics. “With the 2013 crop just harvested being the last that is subject to the 2008 law, farmers are left making plans for their 2014 crops with uncertainty about the rules and regulations that will govern the farm commodity system.”

But farmers won’t be the only ones affected by a lapse in farm policy. With no farm bill before Jan. 1, milk procurement prices could double. According to Keeney, that could sharply increase dairy product prices at the grocery store within just a month.

“Extensions of the 2008 farm bill ranging from one month to two years have been discussed,” Keeney said. “The shorter is far more likely as a stopgap to allow the farm bill conference committee to finalize its report and present it to the chambers to vote.”

Such an extension would prevent the jump in dairy prices until a new, long-term bill could be passed.

According to Keeney, a new farm bill passed quickly in 2014 would necessarily be closer to the Senate version, which includes smaller reductions in nutrition assistance and a greater reliance on historical planting for determining subsidy payments. The Obama administration has declared a preference for the Senate version and would likely threaten a veto to any law that reduced nutrition spending by more than $1 billion per year.

While Lucas was looking at the extension option, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow said the Senate would not pass it, hinting at the discourse between the group.

Lucas said Congress will likely resume farm bill discussions the first week of January.

Stabenow told reporters that she wants to keep up the pressure to finish the bill. She is hoping to announce a framework agreement before the Senate leaves for the holidays on Dec. 20, then hold the open conference meeting in early January and pass the bill. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor