September 13, 2012
Congress returned this week from its summer recess with questions abounding on the fate of the 2012 Farm Bill. After less than one short week in session, a bad situation has unfortunately grown worse, not better.
Conservation Programs Shut Down
On Thursday, September 13, the House approved a “continuing resolution” (or CR for short) to keep the entire government running through next March, putting all of the regular FY 2013 appropriations bills on hold and passing a 6-month extension of 2012 funding instead. The Senate will vote and almost certainly approve the same bill next week.
In the process of pulling this relatively simple legislation together, Congress managed to stop four farm bill conservation programs in their tracks — effectively preventing any new enrollments in FY 2013 for the Conservation Stewardship Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program, and Chesapeake Bay Watershed Inititiative. As a result, over 13,000 farmers will lose the opportunity to participate in conservation efforts and over 12 million acres of land will not benefit from conservation activities and ecological restoration work.
This completely avoidable debacle is horrible enough in its own right, but also makes the job of finishing the new 5-year farm bill harder still by reducing the funding “baseline” that will be available for the long-term measure. To get the programs back on track will now take several hundred million dollars more than would have been the case if Congress had addressed the issue in the CR. In a nutshell, Congress cut off their nose to spite their face. Farmers and the environment stand to be the losers unless remedial action is taken after election day.
2012 Farm Bill Prospects
This brings us to the farm bill itself. It is now crystal clear that no farm bill will happen before the election, and prospects for it happening in the “lame duck” session after the elections remain murky. The hope is that post-election, the House majority leadership will be less fearful of advancing a bill to a House floor vote and that as deadlines approach more clamoring to address programs that run out of funding or run out of authority to operate will force their hands in any event.
What remains in some small doubt for the moment is whether Congress will quit next week for the campaign season without even have extending the current farm bill beyond its September 30 expiration date. The current betting is that no extension will happen and the expiration date will be allowed to come and go without any action.
A better approach would be to pass a 3-month extension, through December, that makes necessary and important adjustments for the interim period, including funding renewals for programs whose funding otherwise expires, and then pass a new farm bill in December. But it appears that even that not terribly heavy lift is more than Congress is able or willing to take on.
There is some chance that the House majority leadership may decide to try again to pass a one-year farm bill extension, as it tried and failed to do earlier this summer. Our expectation is that this option will not come to pass because there is little reason to believe it would have more support than it did earlier this summer. Even if it did come up next week, there is virtually no chance the Senate would even bring it up, because it’s passage would completely kill any hope of getting a new farm bill completed yet this year.
Thus, the “lame duck” strategy – do nothing now, then try to get a new 5-year bill worked out after the election and before the new year – is the last best hope for a 2012 Farm Bill. NSAC supports that strategy, provided the negotiations lead to a bill that enacts real farm program reform, provides a robust conservation title that also fixes the new problems caused by the CR, and includes strong, renewed funding for farm bill mandatory programs in research, rural development, direct and local marketing, organic, renewable energy, and new farmer training.
Look at our action page for ideas for how you can help get a good farm bill completed this year.
Another big lame duck issue (and there are many!) is what will happen to the automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, that are currently scheduled to kick in on January 1. It is widely expected that Congress will somehow act to prevent sequestration from happening, though just how that will transpire remains to be worked out. The House voted today in support of an election-messaging bill to delay sequestration, but any real action will not occur until the lame duck session.
Since August of 2011 — when the Budget Control Act became law — until today, the Obama Administration has refused to reveal what the sequestration cuts would look like for FY 2013 (when they total $109 billion) and beyond. Before leaving town this August, Congress passed a measure that compels the Administration to reveal the numbers. The size and specificity of those cuts will thus now be made public on Friday, and may help influence prospects for a new farm bill.
Based on best available information, it has long been expected that the farm bill cuts will be in the $15 to $16 billion range (over a 10 year period), with no cuts to food stamps, school food, and the Conservation Reserve Program, and with the largest of the cuts falling on federal crop insurance subsidies, followed by commodity subsidies, followed by working lands conservation assistance. We will report in detail early next week on the actual numbers and what they might mean for the future of the farm bill debate.