Fork in the road for the farm bill?

Jul 1, 2013

Credit BigStock image /Harvet Public Media

Déjà vu may be a lighthearted way of looking at it, but it feels like 2012 all over again for the farm bill.

The House of Representatives is once again responsible for delaying legislation that would encompass farm policies such as crop insurance and conservation incentives to farmers and address food policy like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The House struck down a five-year farm bill one week ago. The 234-195 vote came two weeks after the Senate approved their version of the farm bill with a strong bipartisan effort, 66-27.

Where do we go from here? Below are four potential routes Congress could take to move forward on farm legislation.  

1.      Start over

The House could draft another five-year plan, but would have to overcome major political obstacles for approval. The most significant battle line in the debate is the SNAP food stamps program and how much should be cut, if any at all. The defeated bill would have cut $2 billion annually over a 10-year period – five times the amount proposed in the Senate. Some Republican lawmakers argued that the cuts weren’t deep enough, while some Democrats said these proposals were too steep. Democrats also rejected the farm bill in part due to an approved amendment that would have required food stamp applicants to obtain a job or job training in order to qualify for SNAP benefits.

“Folks were warned that if they went too far with some of the amendments that they would jeopardize the passage and sure enough that’s exactly what happened,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in an interview with Harvest Public Media.

One amendment that did not make it to the floor was a proposal by Rep. Marlin Stutzman, a Republican from Indiana, to split nutrition programs and farm policy into two separate bills.

“Right now, this trillion-dollar spending package is a farm bill in name only,” Stutzman said in a press release. “It’s simple: food stamp policy isn’t farm policy. Yet, most Americans are shocked to learn that about 80 percent of the farm bill’s spending goes to Washington’s out-of-control food stamp program.”

But Bryn Bird, a specialty crop producer in Granville, Ohio, believes that combining the farm and food policies creates necessary checks and balances.

“The current Farm Bill requires urban and rural votes to pass,” Bird wrote in answer to a Harvest Network query. “Much of the agriculture policy included in the farm bill consists of conservation and stewardship of the land.  We farmers are utilizing America’s vast resources to grow our personal businesses and the country’s food. In order to ensure we are responsibly doing so it requires urban America to be involved, to understand where their tax dollars are going, and to stop exploitation of our country’s resources.”

Although many are skeptical about the House’s ability to pass any legislation on the farm bill after the unexpected defeat, Ross Pifer, the center director for the Agricultural Law and Resource Center at Pennsylvania State University, believes this is the most likely outcome.

2.      Borrow from the Senate

The Senate farm bill garnered the necessary amount of votes through bipartisan efforts, passing by a vote of 66-27. This version would cost $955 billion over a 10-year period and the AP estimates the annual savings would amount to $2.4 billion. A team of House Democrats, including a member of the Agriculture Committee, has introduced the Senate’s bill to the House. Rep. Cheri Bustos, of Illinois, and Reps. Dave Loebsack and Bruce Baley, both of Iowa, referred HB 2498, which has the same text as the Senate’s farm bill, to the committee on Tuesday.

And there’s also a possibility of the House going into conference with only the Senate’s bill.

3.      Wait, wait...

When inaction with the farm bill last year threatened the industry, a last-minute deal was made as part of the American Taxpayer Relief Act that helped the country avoid the fiscal cliff at the end of 2012. Congress approved a one-year extension of the most recent farm bill, which was originally passed in 2008. The legislation is set to continue until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. But the likelihood of another extension is currently doubtful after a warning from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday.

“I want everyone within the sound of my voice, as well as my colleagues on the other side of the Capitol, to know that the Senate will not pass another temporary farm bill extension,” Reid said on the floor of the Senate.

Vilsack said an extension would jeopardize opportunities to address problems facing organic producers, efforts for soil conservation and land grant universities who are looking for ways in which they can expand agricultural research.

“An extension is a reward for bad behavior,” Vilsack said. “It continues this failure with impunity that we’ve seen too often in Washington, D.C.”

4.      Back to the dairy cliff

The worst-case scenario would be no action on the farm bill, no extension of previous legislation and missing the Sept. 30 deadline. The Agricultural Act of 1949 and its effects are temporarily suspended with each farm bill that passes — if nothing is done by Sept. 30, agriculture policy will revert back to the era of FDR,  including milk prices doubling, according to the Chicago Tribune. This so-called “dairy cliff” is what helped inspire Congress to act in the final hours of 2012 after dairy subsidies were due to expire on Jan. 1.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, Republican from Iowa, told that the 1949 law should pressure the House into action, but that it isn’t a practical long-term solution.

"The 1949 farm bill not only would be expensive but it also wouldn't fit the needs of 21st century agriculture," Grassley said.

No action would also result in yet another year without drought and weather-related disaster insurance that expired in 2011. But Roman Keeney, an agriculture economist at Purdue University, said lack of any action by Sept. 30 won’t mean doomsday. According to Keeney, the crop year extends beyond September and programs such as corn and soybean programs wouldn’t stop after that date.