January 3, 2014
Congress is due back from the holidays next week. The annual spending bills (appropriations) will be the first order of business. (For background on the new budget deal approved in December, read here and here.) The spending bill, which will include agriculture appropriations, is now expected to be unveiled next Wednesday, January 8, with the goal of having a House vote before the end of next week and a Senate vote before the January 15 deadline for action to prevent a second government shutdown. Once the bill becomes available, we will let readers know how sustainable agriculture programs fared and which received funding boosts, which if any farm bill conservation programs were scaled back, and which if any non-germane policy riders were included.
Hopefully following not far behind the appropriations bill will be the new five-year farm bill. Negotiations are continuing on a new bill with a goal of reaching agreement on as much as possible so as to limit the formal meeting of the House-Senate farm bill conferees to a day or two at most, with a limited number of amendments on a defined set of the more contentious issues. There is still a chance that the conferees would meet toward the latter part of next week, and an even greater probability they would meet the week after, once the final floor votes on the appropriations bills have occurred.
If the conferees agree on a new bill, action would then shift in short order to the floor of the House and Senate for an up or down vote on the final bill. We very much hope at that point to be urging favorable consideration. Key to that endorsement will be how good a job the conferees do in maintaining all of the commodity and crop insurance subsidy reform provisions included in the Senate-passed bill (some of which are also in the House bill), how well funded the newer, more innovative farm bill programs are for rural economic development, local and regional food systems, beginning and minority farmers, organic farming, and renewable energy, whether or not conservation funding cuts are minimized and distributed fairly, and whether or not House-passed provisions to weaken enforcement of fair livestock and poultry markets and to weaken environmental and labor laws are tossed out and left on the cutting room floor where they belong.
We also remain hopeful that the conferees will do something to fix the unprecedented and harmful user fee on farmers trying to access conservation assistance that was included as part of the budget agreement passed by Congress in December. This issue has not been the subject of hearings and was not considered during the past two and a half years of farm bill development, but was put in the budget agreement, sight unseen, as a means of increasing government revenues.
Beyond the 2014 spending bills and a new farm bill, Congress also must raise the debt ceiling in February or at least by March to avoid default. Given the track record of the past few years, expect more showdown, crisis-inducing politics as that next big deadline appears, just ahead of the work on the 2015 budget resolution and spending bills this spring.