With their respective party conventions and the August recess now behind them, members return to Capitol Hill with a full plate but little time left to finish the meal.
Two of the most pressing issues; the fiscal year (fy) 2013 continuing resolution to fund the government from October 2012 through March 2013 and the expiration of the current farm bill will take center stage over the next few weeks. The most pressing issue will be the former, as members do not want to return to the campaign trail with the threat of a government shutdown hanging over their heads.
Major farm organizations and their allies continue to publicly oppose both the disaster assistance package (H.R. 6233) passed by the House prior to the August recess – as well as a one-year extension of the current law – because they fear doing so would further diminish the prospects for passage of a comprehensive five-year farm bill. At the very least they hope to pressure the House to move on a farm bill in the lame-duck session.
For example, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) has urged Senate leaders to “refrain from supporting” any legislation resembling the House-passed disaster bill if such a measure is presented in the Senate. The AFBF sees such an approach as a quick fix that would do more harm than good to farmers and ranchers. They also consider it to be narrowly focused and too limited because it applies only to fy 2012.
But the writing may be on the wall. Although he is a strong supporter of passing a five-year farm bill, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) has indicated that a new farm bill may not be possible. The Ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee views an extension of the current farm bill as a possibility, as well as action on a stand-alone disaster aid bill for drought-stricken areas.
In a recent interview Mr. Roberts said “If in fact it’s not possible for a farm bill, which I think we’ve run out of time [for], we need an extension,” He further noted that a five-year bill should be the priority “but if that’s not possible and you have to accept reality, you don’t have to like it, but you have to accept it.” “If we wait until after the elections, will there be a lame duck?”
It does not appear as though the groundswell for passage of the farm bill that supporters had hoped would materialize while members were in their home districts for the recess has occurred. A coalition of 46 agricultural stakeholders will appear in Washington, D.C. this week to try to jumpstart the process but it remains to be seen how effective the effort will be in swaying House leadership.
With House floor action appearing less and less likely, the fallback position appears to be an extension of the current farm bill. There had been hope that an extension would be attached to the Continuing Resolution but that was not to be the case. Prior to departing for the August recess, the White House and Congress reached bipartisan agreement on the spending levels for the CR. Conservative Republicans agreed to a small bump in spending (for a total of $1.047 trillion) but made it clear they would only support a “clean” CR – meaning it would have to be free of additional provisions such as an extension of the farm bill.
Although the GOP leadership in the House of Representatives has several options for moving the 2012 Farm Bill, it appears as though they have not decided which path to take.
There is speculation that the House will allow the current farm bill to expire at the end of September. Due to the fact that crop insurance and commodity and nutrition programs – such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – would continue in the short-term absent passage of a new five-year farm bill. Conservation programs will still be authorized but would not have the ability to sign-up participants.
Such a maneuver, however, only delays the inevitable. According to a report in Congressional Quarterly, congress would have to act by the end of the year to avoid activating 1940s farm law, which could cost billions of dollars. Congress had included the requirement that agriculture policy returns to so-called permanent law as a prod to force lawmakers to finish farm legislation. Another downside of waiting is predicated on simple math: next year the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is already expected to downsize some of its farm bill savings estimates.
It is worth noting that the Obama Administration is not without blame for the current situation. The White House has been slow to recognize the import of the farm bill impasse.
Ironically, the farm bill debate could come back to bite some of the very members the GOP leadership is trying to protect and the Obama Administration is trying to court. The Midwest and Great Plains states figure now in the battle for the White House and Congress and the convergence of programs, policy and politics will be an interesting dynamic to watch over the next few weeks.
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RDL & Associates, LLC
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