November 22, 2013
Thursday was a momentous day in Congress. Senate Democrats went nuclear, voting by a simple majority to change Senate rules and end the minority party’s ability to filibuster presidential nominees other than Supreme Court nominees. Whether this action puts the Senate into a drawn-out series of procedural standstills for the rest of the year remains to be seen, but that would certainly seem to be a possibility.
While that was happening on the Senate floor, the chairs and ranking members of the Agriculture Committees were busy trying to reach a framework agreement on a new farm bill, only to have those talks collapse for the time being. Discussions are expected to pick up again after the Thanksgiving recess, which starts today.
Meanwhile, there has been little noise coming from the big budget deal conferees in the past few days. They are working to come up with an overall government spending number for the current fiscal year (FY 2014) so that congressional appropriators can get busy writing their final bills, and perhaps also so that automatic budget cuts (sequestration) will be repealed or scaled back.
Should those efforts fail, the alternative is likely another continuing resolution that keeps government spending on autopilot and kicks in another round of sequester cuts. Under the latter scenario, agricultural appropriations for this year will be in very dire straights, and commodity program and farm bill conservation program spending will also take another seven percent hit.
The House and Senate will be in session at the same time for only one week in December — the week of December 9. The House is planning to skip town on December 13 and not come back until the new year. The Senate is scheduled to remain in session through December 20. The lack of agreement on work schedules is a reflection of Congress’s seeming inability to do much of anything during this period of extreme partisanship.
The budget conference committee was given a deadline of December 13 to report a deal. At this point, most observers hold out little hope it will get done, but sometimes deals do get done at the last minute.
The same deadline likely applies to the farm bill as well, if there is any hope for action this calendar year.
Farm bill timing and budget timing are somewhat intertwined. While a farm bill conference agreement could go to the House and Senate floor as a stand alone measure, its chances for success are no doubt higher if it is attached to a bigger deal – either an actual budget deal that results in spending compromises, or even just a continuing resolution that keeps spending on autopilot but ensures there will not be a second government shutdown.
That potential second government shutdown triggers on January 15. After the fallout for the GOP from the first shutdown, it is presumed a second shutdown will be avoided at all costs. So a budget deal — or if not, a continuing resolution — will likely move by mid-January. This, then, becomes a date at which a farm bill agreement, or a short or long-term farm bill extension, could also move.
Waiting until January rather than acting in December will mean that, come January 1, commodity programs revert to the anachronistic 1938 and 1949 Farm Bills, starting with the dairy program. However, if a new farm bill agreement or some type of farm bill extension is reached within a few weeks or even a month into the new year, the trigger to return to permanent commodity program law will be of little immediate consequence, other than causing headaches at USDA.
Farm Bill Progress?
With regard to the farm bill conference itself, it is difficult to say much with any certainty since all the action is happening behind closed doors. It does appear, however, that there is still no agreement on the size and scope of the SNAP (food stamp) cuts, the linchpin issue for whether or not there will be a new farm bill. On the commodity title, if the brief public comments from people inside the room are taken at face value, it would appear they are inching closer to a consensus framework, but major details remain unsettled.
In a case of somewhat odd timing, the White House released a 48-page report yesterday that emphasized the importance of passing a new farm bill this year. The report highlighted farm bill contributions to rural development and local and regional food systems, the bioeconomy, food assistance, the farm safety net, conservation and clean energy, trade, and research. Several of those topics actually face significant funding cuts in the pending farm bills, while others remain under hot debate within the House-Senate conference.
Extension in the Air?
With the inability of the conference leaders to announce any breakthrough this week, it was inevitable that discussions of a possible farm bill extension would begin in earnest. In an attempt to keep the pressure on to get a new bill completed, Senate Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) reiterated yesterday that the Senate will not pass a farm bill extension that provides another round of direct payments to commodity producers. House Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK), on the other hand, spoke more approvingly of continuing direct payments.
Looming in any discussion of extensions, whether long term or short term, is the critical issue of whether and how to fund farm bill programs that are already stranded now — livestock disaster assistance, renewable energy and rural development programs, local food programs, and programs for beginning, minority, organic, and specialty crop farmers — as well as conservation programs that will become stranded this coming year without some kind of congressional action.
Of course, it is still possible the elusive farm bill agreement could be reached by the second week of December. As USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said yesterday during the release of the White House report, “I think Congress is capable of acting quickly. They act best and most expeditiously when there’s a timeline.”
That often can be very true. Though with the Senate having gone nuclear yesterday, and with the crazy recess schedule putting the House and Senate in DC at the same time for just one week for the rest of this year, it will take something approaching a miracle.