Farm bill’s greatest enemy is the calendar

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, September 10, 2012

When Congress returns today, it will again take up the task of passing a nearly trillion-dollar farm bill that would set commodity subsidy, conservation, alternative energy and nutrition programs for the next five years.

With a schedule full of religious holidays, the House will have just eight days this month to move the measure before the current farm bill expires Sept. 30. Farm industry observers agree that a more likely course will be a short-term extension that will carry work either into the lame-duck session later this year or into the new Congress next year.

“We’d love to see it pass in September,” said Dale Moore, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s deputy executive director for public policy. “Pragmatically speaking, when Congress comes back, there are not many days left.”

The Senate passed its version of the $970 billion bill in June with a bipartisan 64-35 vote. That bill would reform commodity subsidies, consolidate conservation programs and attempt to eliminate fraud in food stamps, in all cutting $23.1 billion from direct spending (E&ENews PM, June 21).

The House Agriculture Committee passed its version shortly later, a bill that would cut $35.1 billion from direct spending and cost about $958 billion (E&E Daily, July 12). But the legislation stalled before the August recess when deep cuts to food stamps caused divisions between tea party and more moderate Republicans, and between Republicans and Democrats.

Farm groups view this week as critical for determining the farm bill’s future. As of Friday, the farm bill was not on the House legislative schedule for this week.

“I think everyone is frustrated with the lack of progress,” said Bart Ruth, a former president of the American Soybean Association and a current leader in the 25x’25 Alliance, an organization that advocates for renewable energy. “There was the general feeling that the Senate bill was a nice attempt and the hope that the House would be likewise.”

This week, more than 40 groups, led by the Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union, will take to Capitol Hill in a rally expected to attract hundreds of farmers and ranchers. The “Farm Bill Now” coalition will urge members of Congress to pass the full five-year bill as soon as possible to provide certainty to farmers who need to plan for next year’s plantings.

“Let’s get this thing done. There’s been a lot of work that’s already taken place,” said Steve Wellman, current president of the American Soybean Association. “I don’t think it’s too much of a reach to believe it can be finished up.”

The coalition, formed about two weeks ago, is a broad array of various commodity and conservation groups, as well as the 25x’25 Alliance

“The coalition emerged out of the desire from different farm bill stakeholder groups to take advantage of the August recess as an education opportunity and to raise the profile of the farm bill,” said Jeremy Peters, the American Farmland Trust’s director of federal policy. “This rally is really the culminating event for that.”

Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman and National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson will emcee the event. It’s unclear whether lawmakers will attend the rally, but the coalition already has public support from some lawmakers who have pushed to pass the bill.

“I applaud and thank these organizations for joining forces to raise awareness about the need for Congress to pass a five-year farm bill before October,” Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said in a statement.

Several lawmakers are also reportedly organizing a discharge petition to bypass the House Rules Committee and bring the bill directly to the House floor. Such an action requires the signatures of 218 House members.

Extension likely

Despite the interest in the five-year bill, a more likely scenario for this month is that Congress will pass some type of extension of the current legislation.

How long such an extension would be and what exactly it would include are unclear.

Before the recess, House lawmakers floated a one-year extension that would have provided disaster relief while cutting from conservation and commodity programs. The House ended up passing a separate drought relief measure — which also cut from conservation programs — when it became clear that leaders did not have support to pass the extension (E&E Daily, Aug. 3).

Several programs — such as the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Grasslands Reserve Program and all the bill’s energy programs — lose their authority or mandatory funding with the expiration of the current farm bill. Their future under extension scenarios is murkier than that of some of the commodity title programs that provide farmers subsidies for crops.

The Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to idle lands for conservation purposes, would also lose the ability to enroll new farmers without an extension or a new five-year bill.

“Considering the drought impacting the landscape, rains and runoff and the hurricane system, we need these conservation programs now probably more than ever,” said Steve Kline, director of the Center for Agricultural Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Lawmakers going home during recess were able to see the extent of the drought for themselves, noted Earl Garber, president-elect of the National Association of Conservation Districts. He said he thought it has helped raised a sense of urgency in lawmakers.

“In these farm bill proposals are some tools to address all of the issues,” Garber said. “Let’s get the toolbox available so farmers and landowners have something to work with.”

From the Farm Bureau’s point of view, the best scenario for an extension would be one that carries work into the lame-duck session, Moore said. If no action is taken on the farm bill — an unlikely scenario, industry experts agree — then national farm policy will revert back to a 1949 law.

In a newsletter Friday, House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said he remained hopeful that the bill would be passed in September. But it’s not clear what House leadership has in mind.

“We certainly would prefer to have a farm bill. We’re at the finish line,” Kline said. “We just need to take that last step of getting it to the floor.”