November 30, 2012
As we close out on two full weeks of the lame duck session of Congress and head into the final three-week December marathon, there has been lots and lots of talk about farm bill options but little-to-no action. By contrast, there has been some action on the appropriations bills to fund the government, including USDA, for the rest of Fiscal Year 2013, though final action on an “omnibus” spending bill in December seems at best a very slim possibility.
Regular readers are by now well aware of “What’s At Stake?” should Congress fail to enact a new farm bill (or fail to enact a farm bill extension with renewed funding for expiring programs). We have just published the eighth in a series of ten posts in our “What’s At Stake?” series.
So, what are the options for getting a farm bill and what are the odds? Here they are in a nutshell:
1. Finish the 5-year farm bill re-authorization through regular congressional order, with the House Committee-passed bill going to the House floor for amendment and passage, then on to conference with the measure the Senate passed six months ago, and then back to each body for a vote on the final measure. The odds on this option, given the limited time remaining, are close to nil.
2. Finish the 5-year farm bill re-authorization without ever giving the House of Representatives a chance to consider it or amend it, by reaching a House-Senate deal among the Agriculture Committee leadership and, with the blessings of House and Senate leadership, attaching the product to whatever legislation ultimately moves to deal with the larger tax and spending issues most often referred to as the “fiscal cliff” issues. The odds on this option are better, but not high.
3. Enact a modified one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill and then take the 5-year bill up again next year in the new Congress — most likely as part of a broader deficit-reduction package of bills that will be set in motion by the legislation that temporarily resolves the fiscal cliff issues by punting most of them forward. The odds on this option are higher, and will be higher still should option #2 fail.
4. Enact both a modified one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill and a full 5-year farm bill, but one that would not go into effect until 2014. This would give USDA the better part of a year to get the ducks lined up to implement the new measures. This option would take the already complicated set of negotiations that must still be entered into for option #2 or option #3 and multiply them, making it the most complex option. Despite the complexity, however, the odds on this option are probably at least as good as option #2.
5. Do nothing. This could result either from unsuccessful negotiations over a farm bill or farm bill extension, failure to get the votes for a farm bill extension, failure to reach a deal on the fiscal cliff set of issues (under the scenario of a farm bill extension needing to hitch a ride on the bigger bill or under any of the scenarios in which a full 5-year farm bill re-authorization is joined at the hip to the fiscal cliff bill), or just from lack of effort or running out the clock. Given the nearly unthinkable consequences of commodity programs reverting to permanent law come the new year, normal odds would give it little chance of happening, though anything is possible in this year of congressional dysfunction.
There you have it. Clear as mud. We would like to think that with at most three weeks remaining in the lame duck session, that by next week, the likely path forward will be clear and real negotiations can begin.
Here at NSAC, we want a good bill, with all of the reforms in the Senate-passed measure intact, a strong conservation title with no further cuts and without the unequal treatment given to the Conservation Stewardship Program in the House Committee bill, and with very robust funding for the newer, innovative programs the help grow new markets, jobs, and economic opportunity that we have highlighted in the “What’s At Stake?” series. If that proves possible yet this year, we will be ecstatic. If not, we want a modified extension that keeps vital programs alive in 2013 and makes a down payment on reform, in which case we will then redouble efforts to get a strong, reform-minded long term bill next year.
Word on Capitol Hill has it that the twelve appropriations subcommittees that write the bills that provide annual discretionary funding for all government agencies have been working hard the past few weeks to prepare final versions of their respective FY 2013 spending bills. This includes the agriculture appropriations bill that funds USDA and FDA.
Fiscal year 2013 began on October 1 of this year and the government has been functioning on a six-month “continuing resolution” that, with a few modifications, keeps agencies operating at 2012 levels. While the continuing resolution does not expire until March (the halfway point of the fiscal year), the bipartisan leadership of the Appropriations Committees have nonetheless held out hope that Congress would act in December rather than waiting until March. To help make that scenario more realistic, they have been, in essence, conferencing the House Committee and Senate Committee bills to arrive at agreed upon compromises.
While the work to reach compromise bills is supposedly quite far along, there does not currently seem to be a very high probability of the deals — in the form of an omnibus appropriations act — being brought to the House and Senate floors for consideration. That could change, but as of this writing, it would have to be considered a long shot.
Among our priorities for the omnibus include removing all impediments to full funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program, rejecting policy riders added to the House version of the bill that would emasculate USDA regulation of livestock and poultry markets and contracts and USDA regulation of biotechnology, and funding the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Eduction matching grant program.