Congressional August Recess Critical for Immigration and Farm Bill Prospects

August 5, 2013 08:30 AM

With Congress on summer recess, August will be a critical time for immigration and farm bill prospects. Here’s an overview of where the two issues stand.

By Charlie Garrison, legislative dairy consultant

(Editor’s note: Garrison’s comments are featured in the August 2013 edition of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association "Dairy Focus" newsletter.) 

Congress has escaped the summertime heat and humidity in the nation’s capital for its annual "Summer District Work Period," often better known more simply as the "August recess." It’s a tradition that dates back to the time before modern conveniences like air conditioning and air travel made longer periods outside Washington, D.C. for members of Congress and key staff more of a necessity.

This August, however, is going to be a critical time for a couple of key issues for dairy producers. No doubt those who oppose immigration reform in any form other than "anyone who is here illegally must leave yesterday" will be out in full force trying to bully members of Congress into refusing to consider any policy that could actually be accomplished and would have a chance of becoming law.

Those of us who support common-sense, compassionate reform that makes good economic sense and improves our national security cannot let that message from a decided minority in our country stand.

The other issue hanging out there is the farm bill. What members of Congress hear from their constituents during the month of August will play a big role in whether we get a new farm bill before the extension of the current one expires on Sept. 30 or we get another extension. It is a possibility that we run all the way up to New Year’s Day before we know the answer, just like we did last year.

Immigration Reform

The Senate has completed its comprehensive immigration reform bill. It is S 744, "The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013." It includes the list of priorities for dairy producers submitted by the Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA) early in the process:

1) earned legalization for our current workforce;
2) access to year-round workers; and
3) an effective program for new workers when needed in the future.

Those priorities were incorporated into the key principles of the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), of which IDA is a member. The principles formed the basis of negotiations between the AWC and the United Farmworkers (UFW), aimed at forging a consensus agreement for agriculture labor provisions to be incorporated into the comprehensive immigration reform bill that was being written in the Senate.

The AWC and the UFW were able to come together on the terms of an agreement. That agreement was included when the Senate Judiciary Committee debated its bill back in the spring. The agreement proved so effective that, out of more than 300 amendments, the committee had to deal with only two that directly touched the provisions of the agreement between agricultural employers and the farmworkers. The same thing happened on the floor of the Senate. The agriculture agreement has found wide acceptance.

The action on immigration reform has now shifted to the House of Representatives. A "Gang of 8" working on a bipartisan bill became a slightly smaller group back in June when Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador made the determination that he could be more effective working from his seat on the House Judiciary Committee. A month and a half later, the now Gang of 7 has yet to produce a bill. Theirs is expected to be released in September.

Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee has been working on a piecemeal approach to immigration reform. The Committee has passed a bill for agricultural worker visas. The committee bill does offer legalization for current workers. But following an initial period of work authorization of three years, the worker is then part of the ongoing visa program for new workers, which requires a return to the home country for a worker of three months after a maximum period of 18 months of authorized work in the U.S. Obviously, that would be a very difficult schedule for dairy producers to work with.

The House leaves for the August recess without floor votes on any provisions of immigration reform. This issue will be front and center when the Congress returns to Washington, D.C. in September. IDA will continue working with U.S. Representatives Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador to craft an immigration reform bill that works for Idaho dairy producers that can ultimately be passed by the Congress and signed into law by the President.

Farm Bill

Action on the farm bill is also now in the House since the U.S. Senate passed its version earlier this summer. Unable to pass the farm bill the usual way, combining farm programs with nutrition assistance legislation, the House separated the two and passed a farm programs-only bill last month.

Since then, House Republican Leadership has been working on passing a nutrition assistance bill so that the two separate bills could go to conference committee to work out differences with the Senate farm bill. The latest reports indicate the plan is to pass a bill to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Food Stamps, by $40 billion over the next 10 years. The Senate bill cuts SNAP by $4 billion, and the House Agriculture Committee bill would have made about $20 billion in cuts over the next decade.

The action in September when Congress returns will focus on whether a nutrition assistance bill with $40 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next 10 years can draw enough Republican support to pass. Few, if any, Democrats will vote in favor of that level of cuts to nutrition assistance so the Republicans will likely have to do this on their own. What seems to be lost in the debate is the fact that, unlike farm programs, SNAP is permanently authorized. Passing a farm bill is the only way to reform the program. Without action, the Food Stamp program continues on as it is today.

On dairy, there are differences in what the House and Senate have passed. The Senate bill includes both Margin Insurance and Market Stabilization as replacements for the current producer safety net comprised of the Product Price Support Program and Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC). The House accepted an amendment to replace the Agriculture Committee’s inclusion of both Margin Insurance
and Market Stabilization with a Margin Insurance program only. That ensures a fight over dairy safety net policy in the House-Senate conference committee should the farm bill make it that far in the coming months.

The extension of the current farm bill expires Sept. 30. Normally, that would offer a deadline of sorts for the Congress to act. We found out last fall, however, that the sky does not fall immediately should the farm bill be allowed expire. It takes months for parity pricing for commodities, in legislation from 1949, to kick in.

And speaking of that 1949 law, when the House passed its farm program-only bill, it added on a repeal of that legislation from more than five decades ago. The question being asked now is, without the possibility of parity pricing for commodities, is this the last farm bill that could ever pass the U.S. Congress?

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