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The unfinished farm bill is on Speaker John A. Boehner’s legislative to-do list, and by the end of the week, Republican leaders may announce how they will proceed.
The Ohio Republican and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have said the House will resolve the “farm bill issue” but have provided no details.
At this point, leaders have three options: Move the House Agriculture Committee bill (HR 6083) to the floor; fold the House bill or the Senate version (S 3240) into a deficit reduction package to take advantage of the bills’ savings; or go with some sort of reauthorization and extension of the 2008 farm law and leave it to the next Congress to produce a five-year measure.
“The farm bill — you can spin enough scenarios to fill up a whole bunch of papers about what may happen there,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
An extension seems more likely, given the time constraints of the lame-duck session and the need to address the upcoming fiscal cliff of tax and spending issues. An extension could allow programs to continue for a few months, but House Agriculture Chairman Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., has said a one-year extension of current law (PL 110-246) might be the best option if a new bill cannot be passed.
If Congress passes a farm bill this year, Lucas said he is concerned that the Agriculture Department would not have enough time to accommodate a shift in farm programs from direct subsidies to risk management insurance programs.
But even a yearlong extension could be complicated, as it would do nothing to renew four disaster assistance programs that expired in September 2011 but are included in both farm bills. The writers of the 2008 bill used the early expirations to stay within budget.
There’s also a question about annual direct payments. The two bills would end the nearly $5 billion a year in payments based on past cropland production and issued to farmers and landowners regardless of market conditions. Both would shift the money into insurance-like products designed to protect farmers from drops in revenue or prices.
An extension would give lawmakers time to move longer-term legislation through floor votes and to conference committee. It would also mean the baseline or the money allocated for programs for the bills could be reduced when the Congressional Budget Office updates budget estimates early next year.
Farm groups and key Democrats on the House and Senate Agriculture committees want a five-year bill. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, and Collin C. Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, issued separate statements last week calling for action on the House bill.
“I’m optimistic that, if given the chance, we have the votes to pass a five-year farm bill. I remain opposed to an extension of any kind for any time,” Minnesota’s Peterson said in a Nov. 8 release.
He said if the House voted on the Agriculture Committee’s bill before Thanksgiving, there would be time for negotiators to produce a final measure before the end of the year.
But during the recess, Lucas told reporters and farm groups that he would need four days for floor action if House leaders allowed a vote on the bill. To do that, leaders would have to be willing to devote one week out of the four they have scheduled for the post-election session.
The House bill was put on hold through the Nov. 6 elections to protect some members from potentially difficult votes, such as on the level of 10-year cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The committee bill calls for $16 billion in reductions over 10 years. Some conservatives argue that the program, which would account for more than half of the farm bill’s spending over the next decade, could withstand deeper cuts.
SNAP is just one major hurdle that would have to be cleared. If the House bill passes, negotiators may hit a wall in trying to resolve differences in their approaches on agriculture programs. Although both bills rely more heavily on insurance-like risk management proposals, the Senate approach is seen as more favorable to Midwestern corn and soybean producers and the House version is viewed as more favorable to Southern rice and peanut producers.
These are deep-seated regional differences that could take more than a few weeks to resolve.
On the other hand, lawmakers could use the savings achieved through a new, long-term farm bill in their effort to come up with a deficit reduction deal. The House farm bill would reduce spending by $35 billion over 10 years, and the Senate measure contains $23 billion in savings.
Stabenow last week raised her bill’s savings as a selling point for a five-year measure.
“If Congress can work together to pass the farm bill, it will create the trust and momentum we need to overcome gridlock and solve the challenges our country faces,” Stabenow, from Michigan, said in a Nov. 9 written statement. “Passing a bipartisan farm bill that reduces the deficit by $23 billion is a significant first step in meeting the critical deficit reduction challenges our country must face head-on this year.”