by Philip Brasher, CQ Roll Call Staff
The House is shelving a new farm bill for now, with the chamber set to vote Wednesday on a bill that would extend the 2008 farm bill into the next Congress. The Senate can reject the extension or try to reshape the disaster package that’s attached, but there is not much the Senate can do to enact a new farm bill if the House won’t go along.
Extension Spares Direct Payments for 2013. As we reported Friday, the draft farm bill extension (PDF) would provide $621 million in disaster assistance, mostly for livestock producers, without cutting direct payments to grain and cotton farmers for 2013. The bill would reduce the 10-year funding baseline for conservation programs by $759 million and direct payments by $261 million, according to an unofficial score from the Congressional Budget Office (PDF). The reduction in direct payments, which total about $5 billion a year, would not start until fiscal 2014. Under the draft bill, farmers would receive the same amount this fall that they received last year, said Patrick Westhoff, who runs the University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute. “It’s nothing out of anybody’s pocket,” he said. Direct payments are virtually certain to be eliminated in the new farm bill anyway.
Most Aid Would Go to Livestock, But Others Covered. The bill would revive four expired disaster programs, including the Livestock Indemnity Program (estimated cost: $124 million), which compensates farmers and ranchers for livestock losses; the Livestock Forage Program ($441 million), which aids producers whose pastures have been hurt by drought; and two other programs that cover losses to honeybees, farm-raised fish and orchards. To help pay for the disaster aid, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program would be cut by $350 million and the Conservation Stewardship Program would be reduced by $289 million. Omitted from the package is the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments Program, or SURE, which Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., has proposed reviving. SURE would add significantly to the cost and provide payments to farmers who also have crop insurance.
Democrats Demanded Extension, But Right Would Balk. Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Agriculture’s ranking Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, both said last week that they wouldn’t agree to an extension unless House GOP leaders allowed it to be used as a vehicle to start conferencing a new farm bill. House Republicans earlier agreed to pass a compromise highway bill (PL 112-141) in similar fashion, but GOP leaders have shown no willingness to allow the farm bill to be conferenced this year. “Congress should not be playing politics with the rural economy, one of our nation’s economic bright spots,” Peterson complained in a statement released after the draft extension was released. “I am against an extension and will remain opposed until I receive assurances that this is the path to conference a five-year farm bill with the Senate.” House GOP leaders would face a rebellion on the right if they went along with what Peterson wants, report CQ’s Ellyn Ferguson and Roll Call’s Daniel Newhauser. Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action for America, called any effort to go to conference without a vote on the committee-passed farm bill (HR 6083) a “non-starter for conservatives.” A conservative congressional aide said, “Most conservatives don’t like the old farm bill any more than the new one, and we certainly won’t support any effort to use it as a vehicle to sneak the new farm bill past the House floor and go straight to conference committee.”
Count on Senate Democrats using the extension to point out to constituents that the House has failed to move a farm bill, while the Senate passed a version (S 3240) in June with bipartisan support. “Our position is that there’s no good reason for the House not to take up and pass the Senate’s bipartisan farm bill. The House should not let petty politics get in the way of passing this important, bipartisan bill,” said Adam Jentleson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Expiring Programs Left Without Mandatory Money. To assuage conservatives, the draft extension bill would cut enough from farm and conservation accounts to produce a small net savings to taxpayers of $399 million over 10 years, according to CBO. But a series of programs that are scheduled to lose their funding baseline Sept. 30 would be left out in the cold by the extension. Some 37 programs that received mandatory spending in the 2008 farm bill have no funding baseline after Sept. 30, according to the Congressional Research Service. A few programs, including the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, renewable-energy incentives and assistance for beginning farmers and organic agriculture, would receive appropriation authority under the bill but no mandatory funding.
SNAP Issue Loomed Over Farm Bill. The main sticking point for the House farm bill seems to be over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A sizable number of House Republicans think the $16.1 billion in SNAP reductions should be increased to at least $33 billion, the level set in a House reconciliation bill. Many Democrats say the proposed cut in the bill is already too high. “What would happen on the floor, I think, is the Republicans would add to the cuts for food stamps, which would shed all the Democrat support. There aren’t 218 Republicans who would vote for it under any circumstance,” said Texas Republican Mike Conaway. To bring up the bill “and let it fail is not an option.”
Extension Would Be Unusual, but so Was Fast Timeline. This Congress will make history if it doesn’t pass a farm bill. No farm bill has been introduced, stalled and had to be re-introduced in the next Congress, according to the Congressional Research Service. But it’s important to keep in mind that the House and Senate agriculture committees have been trying to pass a new bill on a historically short timetable this year. The first markup, in the Senate, occurred in late April for a bill due to expire Sept. 30. House Agriculture followed suit July 11. The 1973 farm bill was enacted in less than two months, but the legislation has become increasingly complex, and Congress has been taking longer and longer to write the bills since then. It took more than a year from the time the 2008 farm bill was introduced until it was passed in June of that year, according to CRS (PDF).
Most farm bills have been introduced in the first session of a two-year Congress. This time, lawmakers waited until halfway through the second session. (The committees will probably point out that they tried to pass a farm bill late last year as part of the deficit-reduction super-committee process, but that didn’t go anywhere. No draft farm bill was ever made public, much less introduced.)
Contrary to popular belief around Capitol Hill, farm bill extensions aren’t common, CRS says. Congress had to extend the 2002 farm bill several times before the 2008 bill was finished. But the 2002 bill was completed on time, as was the 1996 bill. The 1990 farm bill was originally scheduled to expire in 1995, but Congress extended it by a year in 1993 through budget reconciliation.