Farm Bill Finish Line Still Uncertain

March 10, 2012 09:57 AM

Lawmakers are focused on finalizing a new farm bill in 2012, but even with nine months left in the year there’s an alarming amount of work to be done. The farm bill framework that Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and House Ag Committee Chair Frank Lucas
(R-Okla.) drafted this past fall in an effort to be proactive has been set aside for now, and the development of the new bill is taking a more common route.

Senate takes action. To draft its version of the farm bill, the Senate Ag Committee is conducting four hearings, the first of which was in early February. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack gave an overall perspective on what the administration thinks is essential for farm legislation.

Conservation issues rank high in importance, with the majority of the commodity ag groups supporting the conservation plans that were part of the supercommittee’s failed debt
reduction efforts this past fall. In a letter to ag committee leaders, ag groups applauded the "simplification, flexibility and consolidation" of the revamped conservation programs.

Watch the Meet the Freshman Roundtable

New lawmakers serving on the House Agriculture Committee discuss their priorities for the year, including the 2012 farm bill.

The package put conservation programs, which were reduced from 23 to 13, into five toolboxes, explained Stabenow at the Farm Journal Forum in late 2011.

It’s likely that the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) will see a lower maximum acreage level in the new farm bill, reportedly down to 25 million acres. Currently, the cap on CRP acres is 32 million; at the end of January, 29.7 million acres were enrolled in the program.

In its fiscal year 2013 budget proposal, the Barack Obama adminis-tration caps CRP acres at 30 million, but lawmakers have not shown much interest in the budget plan.

As the Senate Ag panel moves forward with hearings, the House Ag Committee has yet to schedule any hearings related to the farm bill.

Lucas continues to focus on regulatory issues. The House is expected to shift to the farm bill as spring rolls around, closely monitoring what the Senate Ag panel is working on.

Hurdles to cross. Despite the move to a more common route for constructing a farm bill, several hurdles stand in the way of Congress reaching the finish line.

Panel action: Once the Senate Ag Com-mittee completes its schedule of hearings, the legislative language has to be compiled. From there, members of the panel will likely want to shift various provisions in the package.

It’s unlikely the framework package that Lucas and Stabenow produced this past fall will be the final bill emerging from either panel.

CBO baseline: Even though the Congressional Budget Office issued its budget baseline in January, it’s still not clear exactly how much money the panels have to work with, except that it is less than they had at their disposal for the 2008 farm bill.

Budget: The House Budget resolution, which serves as the guideline for the House Ag Committee to write its bill, is still not in place, stalling farm bill action. Typically, the budget resolution is in place by April.

Time: Even though it’s only the third month of the year, there are fewer than 80 legislative days remain-ing. Even if the farm bill wording can be worked out, both chambers have to devote the necessary time to seeing the bill through to completion.

Some suggest that an extension of the current program could be in order, especially if lawmakers cannot get a new bill wrapped up before the November elections. But extending the 2008 farm bill would lead to complications on several fronts.

First, there are 37 programs that expired on Sept. 30, 2011, and have no budget. Extending them would mean finding the dollars in an already tight budget to fund them.

Then there is the matter of getting an extension through the House and Senate. A host of lawmakers would likely be ready with amendments to alter the current farm program structure—perhaps dramatically. Those alterations could be difficult to undo in the future.

Waiting until 2013 also has risks beyond the extension of the current farm bill. The budget picture, especially with a still sluggish U.S. economy, won’t be much brighter then.

As the farm bill process continues to unfold, about the only certainty at this point is uncertainty.


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Read Analysis: Looming political fight puts farmers on battlefield

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