Path to the 2012 Farm Bill: Congress Returns to DC with No Clear Path Forward
September 6th, 2012
Earlier this month, when Congress left the heat and humidity of the DC summer to go on August recess, the fate of the 2012 Farm Bill remained unclear.
(If you need a refresher on where we are in the process, recall that the House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the bill in July, but the House Republican leadership refused to bring the bill to the floor for debate before recess. The House did pass a narrower disaster assistance bill but only after failing to pass a extension package as an add-on to the disaster assistance bill. The Senate passed its version of the farm bill in June, which includes a broader disaster assistance package.)
Despite hopes that the drought and enough clamoring from farmers back at home would force lawmakers to act on a comprehensive farm bill before the current bill expires on September 30, there have been no “game-changing” events over recess that would define a clear path forward. The drought has continued to keep farm issues front and center in the national and local media, and Members of Congress have continued to make the case for passing a farm bill soon, but no consensus path has emerged.
A couple of events did happen over recess that add further complexity and uncertainty to the process moving forward. Republicans picked Paul Ryan (R-WI) as their Vice Presidential candidate, causing some analysts to have bigger doubts about a farm bill happening early this fall. Ryan is a leading critic of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, and also has called for cuts to farm programs more than twice as large as those contained in the Senate and House Committee-passed bills. Lawmakers — especially those associated with the tea party — who share his goal of cutting food stamps and/or farm programs may prefer a delay of the farm bill debate given the possibility that he may be voted Vice President and potentially have a stronger role in shaping the farm bill.
A few Representatives have been keeping up the pressure to bring the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill to the House floor for debate by organizing a discharge petition. Representatives Braley (D-IA), Gibson (R-NY), Berg (R-ND), and Welch (D-VT) have been leading the effort, which would need support from a majority of Members (218) to force consideration of the bill on the House floor. The petition will not be available before September 13.
The Multiple Potential Paths Forward
There are three potential paths forward for the farm bill, each with its own set of options. The broader contextual factors that further complicate the path forward are the November elections and the limited days that Congress is in session in September (the House is in session for eight days and the Senate for twelve). Both of these factors make it harder for there to be a bill early this fall.
Option 1: Congress Passes Farm Bill Reauthorization in September
Throughout the year, NSAC has consistently called on the Agriculture Committees and Congress to pass a comprehensive farm bill reauthorization this year, before the current bill expires on September 30. Many of the major constituencies involved in the farm bill process share that goal. (For a refresher on why this is important, read this post.)
Despite this shared goal, and the pressure around making it happen, it is at this point extremely unlikely that Congress will pass a new farm bill before the current one expires. One of two options would have to happen for a bill to pass in September: (1) the bill gets debated and voted on on the House floor, the Senate and House versions are melded into one, and the melded version makes it past both chambers before September 30. Or, (2) the Agriculture Committee leaders conference the Senate version with the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill, and the bill gets attached to a must-pass bill (such as a continuing resolution) in September.
There was a possibility before recess that the second option would materialize over recess, but that has not been the case.
Option 2: Some Sort of Extension of Current Farm Bill
Far more likely at this point is some sort of extension of the current bill. How long, how much, and how comprehensive remains unclear. Earlier this summer, the House of Representatives rejected an attempt to pass a top-down, one-year extension that would have doomed many sustainable agriculture priorities. The House reaction sent a clear message that a farm bill extension that does not include extending important farm bill rural development, beginning farmer, local food, organic, and energy programs is not an option.
One option is a short-term extension that extends the current bill (or a modified version of it) until the “lame-duck” session after the elections. This would give lawmakers time to conference the Senate bill and the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill, and the final version of the bill would be likely be attached to other “must pass” legislation that Congress plans to vote on during the lame-duck session.
Another option that made a brief foray into the DC rumor-mill over the recess was a six-month farm bill extension (Congress is currently putting together a six-month continuing resolution to keep the government funded through March, 2013). This option seems to have fortunately fallen from favor.
The other extension option is for Congress to pass a one-year extension, although the bill would have to be different from what the House leadership proposed in July to gain wide support.
Any one of these options could be tied to a disaster assistance package that Congress is poised to pass if a farm bill is not reauthorized. (Remember, the Senate passed comprehensive disaster assistance in June with its farm bill and the House passed a stand-alone but narrower disaster package at the beginning of August.)
Option 3: No Action on Farm Bill in September
There has started to be talk of not doing anything on the farm bill in September. If Congress doesn’t reauthorize or extend the farm bill by September 30, then permanent law, which for the farm bill dates back to 1949, kicks in. There is an assumption that 1949 law would not actually kick in, despite the legal obligation, and that, therefore, there is no urgent reason to pass a bill because food stamps, federal crop insurance, and most conservation programs would all continue, and the real impact on farm crops wouldn’t be felt until the winter wheat harvest in May.
This kind of thinking ignores a number of practical realities. USDA would be forced to occupy a multiple-month holding pattern, temporarily stopping many services and programs. Program administration involves a certain amount of planning and preparation, stakeholder input, rulemaking, and outreach. Even if program opportunities aren’t announced until later in the year, the preparation work that leads up to announcements takes time and certainty. Programs can’t simply be “turned off” and then “turned on” again with the expectation that program delivery and administration will not suffer.
Moreover, it ignores major realities. First, as noted above, programs that need to be renewed and refunded would be left high and dry, including all the major programs for beginning and minority farmers, farmers markets, organic agriculture, renewable energy, and rural economic development. Second, dairy would also be left hanging with no current program. Third, the Wetland Reserve, Grassland Reserve, and Conservation Reserve Programs all would be shut down with respect to new enrollment.
Note that should this “do nothing” option happen, then it is likely that Congress would take action to extend or fully reauthorize the bill in the lame-duck session. Doing nothing is very dangerous in September, but monumentally irresponsible in November or December.
What All of This Means for Sustainable Agriculture
There are three main issues that hang in balance for sustainable agriculture as the process moves forward.
Issue 1: Key Programs that Run out of Funding
Key programs that create jobs in rural America, seize market opportunities for farmers and small businesses, and ensure the success of the next generation of farmers run out of funding if Congress does not reauthorize or extend and fund these programs. These include:
- Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program
- Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers
- Conservation Reserve – Transition Incentive Program
- Value-Added Producer Grants
- Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program
- Rural Energy for America Program
- Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative
- National Organic Certification Cost Share Program
- Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives
- Farmers Market Promotion Program
The House has already rejected an extension bill that did not include funding for these programs. If an extension bill does not fund these programs, we cannot support it. It would reverse some of the very best innovations of the last few farm bills. Extending the big ticket subsidy programs but leaving the small innovative, job creating programs in the dust is quite simply not an acceptable option.
Issue 2: Funding for Conservation
Even though the working lands conservation programs don’t run out of legal authority until 2014 and have permanent funding, Congress has raided these programs before to fund other programs. Most recently, the House proposed cutting the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to fund disaster assistance (a truly short-sighted move). Conservation funding has been hit time and again because our lawmakers have placed more importance on production subsidies and paying producers for losses rather than rewarding them for smart land management.
Congress may try to use conservation programs once again as its ATM, especially to pay for disaster assistance. This too is completely unacceptable. Disaster assistance should be treated as emergency spending, as provided for by the Budget Control Act (BCA) approved by Congress and signed into law in 2011. This type of drought-based emergency is precisely the type of event contemplated by the BCA. If the emergency provision is not triggered, however, then all mandatory farm program spending needs to be on the table and allocated according to fair share formulas. Gouging conservation funding that helps create more resilient farming systems over the long term to pay for immediate drought relief is foolish and self-defeating.
Issue 3: Whither reform?
The Senate bill includes reforms to commodity and, to a lesser extent, crop insurance programs. The reforms include payment limits on commodity subsidies, tighter eligibility rules for recipients of commodity subsidies, and basic conservation requirements tied to crop insurance subsidies. Both bills eliminate direct payments. All of these reforms generate savings and reflect a modernization of the farm safety net. Whatever path a likely extension takes, it must make a down payment on reform and incorporate the reforms included in the Senate bill for it to pass the basic fiscal responsibility test applied with increasing frequency to most bills considered in Congress.
Placing No Bets
Few people are making bets on what will happen to the farm bill in the next month. In addition to all of the possible — if not necessarily likely — options laid out above, there are additional options that will likely emerge as lawmakers return to town and as Capitol Hill wakes up from vacation-mode. We will also note that many political cards have been stacked against this farm bill process since the get-go, but that the process has moved forward despite the political logjam that hangs over most federal legislation these days.
Regardless of the path forward, Congress will be making many decisions about funding for sustainable agriculture programs and what kind of down payment to make on reform over the next few weeks — and we need everyone to speak up! To find out when to take action in support of sustainable agriculture, sign-up for our action alerts!