Cantor Pledge for Farm Bill Vote Post-Election Still Leaves Finish Line Uncertain

October 26, 2012 03:18 AM

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Cantor commits to bringing farm bill issue to a vote in the lame-duck session, but that doesn’t really change the farm bill outlook. As lawmakers continue to push toward the Nov. 6 elections, the issue of a farm bill has surfaced again with a pledge in Idaho by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor that the chamber will vote on a farm bill after the elections.

"I’m committed to bring the issue to the floor and then to see a way forward so we can get the votes to pass (a bill)," Cantor said. The measure approved by the House Ag Committee was not brought to the floor before the House exited as the "votes were not there."

Stabenow statement. Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she was heartened by Cantor’s pledge. In a statement, Stabenow said, "I'm very pleased to hear that Majority Leader Cantor is now committed to bring the Farm Bill to the floor immediately after the election. America's farmers, ranchers, small businesses and 16 million Americans employed in agriculture desperately need the certainty and disaster relief the Farm Bill provides. "

Noting the Senate action to complete their farm bill earlier, Stabenow said she hoped "our colleagues in the House of Representatives will follow that lead with a bipartisan approach to this legislation. It is critical that we are able to finalize the Farm Bill before the beginning of next year when farm programs begin to expire, which would impact milk and food prices for families."

Not really a shift. But the Cantor comment on the bill is not necessarily a break from his prior statements and those from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Prior to the House exiting for the push to the November 6 elections, Boehner said the farm bill issue would be addressed in the post-election lame-duck session.

"Cantor’s statement is that they would see if there is a way forward to get the votes to pass a bill, not necessarily a new farm bill," said one observer. "That is not a commitment to bring the House Ag Committee-passed farm bill to a vote. And Cantor again reiterated why that bill didn’t come to the floor before lawmakers left – they didn’t have the votes. Why suddenly in the post-election world would there be votes to pass that bill that weren’t there before?"

Time running short. Should the House Ag Committee bill be brought to the floor during the lame-duck session, there will be a host of amendments to the plan. That would require dedication of a portion of what is currently scheduled as 16 legislative days before the end of calendar 2012 – two four-day "weeks" starting the week after the Nov. elections (no votes are scheduled for Fridays) and then a break for Thanksgiving, followed by another two four-day weeks leading up to Christmas.

And even if the House would vote on a new bill unless that farm bill is the Senate-passed version, there are still differences between the House and Senate bills that would need to be ironed out. Among those remain a wide chasm on nutrition programs where the spending cuts in the senate bill would amount to $4 billion while the House package reduces that spending by $16 billion over 10 years.

Besides that key issue, there’s the matter of what will replace direct payments. The Senate bill replaces the suite of direct payments, counter cyclical payments and the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program with a shallow-loss plan called Ag Risk Coverage (ARC). The House Ag panel bill offers producers a choice between Revenue Loss Coverage (RLC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC), the latter of which would be based on updated reference prices (target prices).

And House Ag Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) has been clear that farmer choice is important in any new farm bill. And, he is the chairman of whatever conference takes place.

In addition, given the timeframe now, expectations are that an extension of the current farm bill will be needed even if a new farm bill were to be put together.

The looming prospect of "permanent law" taking effect is yet another factor in the situation with dairy the first commodity that would see the provisions really kick in. The support price for dairy would rise dramatically as 2013 starts, raising the potential for substantial outlays.

No ‘simple’ extension. But even an extension of the current farm bill is, as noted previously, not a simple task, either. For one, it would mean a continuation of direct payments that all observers agree will disappear with the new bill. Second, there’s still the issue of the 35-plus programs from the 2008 Farm Bill that have not legislative authority and thus no budget spot in the baseline.

Still, given the changes that would come with a new bill from provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill, getting those implemented seems a tall order despite assurances from USDA officials that the process for implementing a new bill this time won’t take the length that implementing the 2008 package did.

Conmments: Many are seizing on the Cantor comments as signaling the House will vote on a new farm bill in the post-election session but he merely said the issue would be brought to the floor. And while the estimated savings from a new farm bill would certainly be an enticing batch of funds for lawmakers to tap as they seek to avert the fiscal cliff, that again would require agreement between the House and Senate on provisions in a new farm bill. That isn’t there as of yet, particularly on nutrition.

Then as for an extension of the current bill, that would need to be "paid" for in some respect and most concur that means a reduction in the direct payments as an offset to restarting provisions of the 2008 Farm Bill.

So the Cantor comments haven’t necessarily changed the farm bill landscape from where it has been for weeks.  

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