Farm bill extension omits energy title, limits conservation funding

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 3, 2013

The “fiscal cliff” package heading to the president’s desk includes a partial extension of the farm bill that averts a crisis in milk prices but fails to provide mandatory energy funding and several other programs.

The deal negotiated between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) came after a one-year extension agreement reached over the weekend between congressional agriculture leaders failed to gain any momentum on the House floor. It caps months of uncertainty over the nation’s farm policy but falls far short of the five-year bill that the agriculture community had been seeking.

McConnell on Monday called the entire fiscal package an “imperfect solution” but one that protects constituents from “very real financial pain.” The bill punts across-the-board cuts down the road, extends tax cuts for most Americans and raises taxes on the wealthy.

But in a floor speech late Monday, Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) slammed the nine-month farm bill extension, expressing concern that it fails to include several programs and was written without consultation from Senate and House Agriculture leaders.

“There is absolutely no way to explain this other than agriculture is just not a priority,” said Stabenow, who voted for the greater fiscal package despite her objections.

The fiscal package’s nine-month extension, which is expected to be signed by President Obama, includes provisions to ensure that the price of milk will not spike at the beginning of this year, as would have happened without a new farm bill because of an antiquated law governing the price supports paid by the government to milk producers.

The extension also continues direct payments to farmers for commodity crops, a subsidy estimated to cost $5 billion this year that would have been eliminated under the full five-year farm bill.

But the extension doesn’t include disaster assistance that livestock producers have been seeking after last summer’s drought, nor does it provide mandatory funding for energy programs. It also fails to fully extend the conservation title or support research on organic crops, according to Stabenow.

“The Republican leader’s way of extending the farm bill would have zero — there would be no energy title, zero. That is absolutely unacceptable,” Stabenow said. “We also would not see the full conservation title extended, key areas involving protecting land and open spaces that I know Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever and others who hunt and fish care deeply about in terms of protecting our open spaces.”

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, called the extension “shortsighted,” while Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said it was “blatantly anti-reform.”

“We are extremely disappointed in the Republican leadership for proposing this deal and in the White House for accepting it,” Hoefner said in a statement. “The message is unmistakable — direct commodity subsidies, despite high market prices, are sacrosanct, while the rest of agriculture and the rest of rural America can simply drop dead.”

The extension deal comes months after the Senate passed a new five-year farm bill that would cost $976 billion over a decade and save about $23 billion in direct spending. The House Agriculture Committee also approved a version last year which has sat on the House floor since July. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) maintained throughout the last several months that he did not have the votes to pass the bill.

During the fiscal cliff negotiations over the past few weeks, leaders of Senate and House Agriculture committees vied to include the full farm bill in an end-of-the-year package, but hopes dimmed on opposition from Boehner.

Over the weekend, Stabenow and House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) reached an agreement on a one-year extension that would have eliminated direct payments and included disaster assistance. It would have cost more than $1 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

House Republican leaders also filed two one-month extensions over the weekend, but none of the bills made it to floor debate.

In her floor speech Monday, Stabenow said she was worried that the farm bill process would continue to drag out.

“I can see it coming, limping along, limping along, extension after extension, just like we seem to see happening everywhere here,” she said. “I thought agriculture was the one area where we were not going to do that.”