Farm bill stalls in Congress until September or later
By Ching Lee
Despite pressure from farm groups encouraging passage of a new five-year farm bill, Congress failed to advance the pending legislation before adjourning for its five-week recess.
The House of Representatives instead approved a last-minute emergency disaster assistance bill intended to help drought-stricken livestock farmers, but the Senate declined to consider it—leaving both the stand-alone measure and the broader farm bill in limbo until lawmakers return in September.
H.R. 6233, the Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2012, would provide $383 million in drought relief by retroactively extending the Livestock Indemnity Program, the Livestock Forage Program, the Emergency Livestock Assistance Program and the Tree Assistance Program—all of which expired last year.
Although Farm Bureau did not oppose this legislation, it had joined other farm groups in urging House leaders to reach agreement on a new farm bill before the current one expires at the end of September. The groups noted that the version of the bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee in early July included virtually identical provisions for disaster assistance, as well as aid for fruit and vegetable farmers not included in H.R. 6233.
Farm groups said the disaster package would help livestock producers hit by drought, but it is primarily aimed at those who graze animals and leaves out a large portion of farmers and ranchers in other agricultural sectors. That's because the provisions are limited to indemnities that occur because of bad weather and would not help producers who are affected by high corn and soybean prices that are driving up feed costs, they said.
"This bill does little to help poultry producers and only provides limited assistance via the grazing program for dairy farmers. And besides the Tree Assistance Program, it also provides no aid to fruit and vegetable producers who may not have crop insurance available to them as a risk management tool," said Rayne Pegg, manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division.
Before passing the aid package, the House had considered a one-year extension of the current farm bill that included the disaster provisions, hoping to delay action on the new farm bill until the next Congress. But House leadership did not have enough votes to support the extension and withdrew the bill, opting for the aid package, which only applies to 2012.
When Congress returns on Sept. 10, members will have only eight legislative days to act before heading home to campaign before the November election. That makes getting a new farm bill out of the waning days of this Congress much more of a long shot, said American Farm Bureau Federation farm policy specialist Mary Kay Thatcher.
"This farm bill will be much harder to do next year than this year," she said. "You have to believe that a new Congress coming in is going to be even more concerned about the budget deficit. So if we have many more cuts out of agriculture, it's going to be almost impossible to write a farm bill that really does have a viable safety net for farmers and ranchers."
It is unlikely the Senate will take up the stand-alone disaster bill. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has said she will not pass a bill that only covers some producers and prefers to take up the full farm bill. Democrats, who control the Senate, also don't like how the disaster package is paid for by cuts of $639 million from two conservation programs—the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program—leaving $256 million to go toward deficit reduction.
But there is much to reconcile in the Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill that was passed in June and the version that came out of the House Agriculture Committee, on which the full House has yet to vote. The Senate bill would cut spending by about $23 billion during 10 years, while the House version would reduce $35 billion.
House Speaker John Boehner was reluctant to bring the farm bill to the floor because of lack of support from members, who remain divided about the cost of the legislation—nearly $100 billion a year. Many Democrats oppose the $16 billion reductions to the food assistance program in the House bill, saying it's too much, while some GOP lawmakers don't think the cuts are enough.
"This will be a controversial bill," Thatcher said.
Presuming the House ultimately passes a farm bill, there will be much work to do as the House and Senate versions go to conference committee to resolve their differences. For example, the Senate bill cuts food assistance by only about $4 billion. There is also an Air Quality Initiative in the Senate version that Farm Bureau supports but the House bill lacks. In addition, the House bill contains an amendment that would prevent state laws from restricting the sale of farm products based on how they were produced. Farm Bureau opposes this provision because it would not allow California to enforce state standards on dairy products, egg production, fresh produce and other agricultural products.
"We aren't giving up on getting a new farm bill enacted this year. While representatives are in their districts for summer recess, we need to remind them that we need a five-year farm bill this year," Pegg said.
The House and Senate agriculture committees have at least one tool up their sleeves, she said.
"They can hold an unofficial conference committee, which just happened for the transportation bill," Pegg said. "If that doesn't happen, we will look to the lame-duck session for legislative action."
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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