September 6, 2013
Congress will be back in Washington next week and first up will be debates in both houses on Syria. The debate and action on Syria will take at least a week, and could spill over into a second week if a Senate filibuster takes place. The time debating foreign war policy will delay action on the farm bill and on the agriculture appropriations bill — to what degree exactly remains to be seen.
Very little progress was made on the new farm bill during the August recess. Yes, it was addressed in numerous meetings and speeches by Members as they toured their home states, but there was very little action going on behind the scenes back in DC. In the meantime, key constituencies made their views known.
The office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) continues to say that a nutrition-title-only bill, to complement the earlier House-passed farm-only farm bill, will come to the House floor in September. That bill is expected to cut the SNAP (food stamp) budget by approximately $40 billion over the next decade and include policy changes that are anathema to most Democrats and some moderate Republicans. If that bill does come to the floor, it will only pass by a narrow partisan margin, if at all.
Even if it passes, Cantor’s spokespeople are making no promises that House conferees would then be appointed to hammer out a final, comprehensive farm bill with the Senate, though Members representing agriculture on both sides of the aisle continue to push for a House-Senate conference. It is also uncertain if, should the House GOP leadership decide to go to conference, they would take the farm-only farm bill or the nutrition-only bill to conference, or if they would try to marry them into a comprehensive bill on the House floor. Only one bill can be taken to conference, and all three approaches carry unique strategic pitfalls.
October 1 is not only the day the current farm bill extension runs out, but is also the start of the new fiscal year, which means Congress has only the month of September left to hammer out a short-term Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the entire government funded and working. Current expectations are for the House to vote on a short-term CR soon after the Syria vote is out of the way. Earlier partisan GOP talk threatening to shut down the government over various extraneous causes seems to have dissipated, though of course that could still change.
The short-term CR could be for one month or for three months or even for six months (as was the case last year). It is needed to buy more time for Congress to finish its work on regular appropriations bills or a long-term CR later this year or early next. In any event, Congress will be late once again on its duty to complete appropriations bills before October, causing the by-now customary havoc in the administration of government programs.
Following closely on the heels of the October 1 CR deadline and farm bill expiration will be the showdown over the debt ceiling. The debt ceiling must be lifted by mid-October according to the most recent Treasury Department projections. If the debt ceiling is not lifted in time, the country will go into default. There will undoubtedly be high level, high drama negotiations as the deadline gets closer and closer. The bill to lift the debt ceiling could be yet another very short-term fix or perhaps a longer-term deal. It could set a new limit, or could grant the President authority to raise the limit administratively but give Congress a chance to vote down the increase. It could also be fairly clean, dealing only with the debt limit, or could carry lots of other freight along with it, including measures to cut spending or raise taxes.
If the short-term CR is made to expire sometime in November or December, that will set in motion a second must-pass legislative situation on either a long-term CR or real appropriations bills. Once again, as with the debt ceiling vote, that could be just an appropriations bill or could also carry other issues with it, including conceivably the farm bill.
House Food Stamp Bill
USDA reported this week that some 14.5 percent of Americans lacked consistent access to adequate food at some point in the past three years, a number which has remained fairly constant since the 2008 economic downturn began. USDA’s Office of Inspector General also released a report this week showing that the federal crop insurance program provided nearly $15 million in “high-dollar” overpayments, or about three-quarters of all the overpayments made by all USDA programs. According to the report, food stamps and other feeding programs had no high overpayments.
Despite this ongoing hunger problem, a still troubled job market, and the very low overpayment abuse rate, the benefit levels of the food stamp program will decline starting in November, when additional funding from the economic stimulus bill runs out. On top of that already scheduled cut, and despite budget projections showing the annual cost of the food stamp program declining as the economy improves, House leadership, guided by Majority Leader Cantor, is proposing an additional $40 billion in cuts, as well as new incentives for states to further restrict food-stamp access for those not working steadily.
The House food stamp bill has not yet been formally introduced, nor has a specific time for floor action on it been announced. The general expectation based on statements by Cantor and others is that it will come up sometime in September. The House earlier this year defeated a comprehensive farm bill that included the nutrition title and then turned around and passed, on a strictly partisan basis, a bill that stripped the nutrition title out of the farm bill.
The House could go to conference to craft a new farm bill now, taking its farm-only farm bill into conference with the Senate’s comprehensive bill. Alternatively, it could wait until it passed a nutrition-only bill, if in fact such a bill could pass, and then go to conference with that bill, but without the farm-only farm bill. Or it could attempt to pass a new comprehensive bill that had both parts, though having defeated such a bill before makes that seem difficult.
Farm Bill Expiration Issues
If no final farm bill emerges before October 1, a situation that now appears to be a certainty, the current farm bill will expire. Over the long-term, farm bill expiration will affect nearly every USDA farm, food, and rural program. Immediately, however, its biggest impact will be on programs that, despite having ongoing farm bill funding, will lose the authority to actually spend the funding provided. Those programs include the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program, Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and many of the major agricultural export programs. New activity in all of those programs will cease as of the end of September.
In addition to those newly expiring programs, all of the so-called “stranded” programs that have been temporarily put out of business in 2013 because they were excluded from the nine-month farm bill extension that became law at the beginning of this year will start the new fiscal year still in moth balls. The stranded programs include major farm bill programs for rural development, renewable energy, beginning farmers, minority farmers, organic farmers, and specialty crop farmers, as well as disaster assistance for livestock producers.
To put it another way, the farm bill extension negotiated by the White House and congressional Republican leaders at the end of last year left out over half of agriculture as well as farm bill support for rural communities and energy independence, and those sectors will continue to be stranded as the next fiscal year begins. Most of the programs will receive new funding if and when a new five-year farm bill becomes law, and most or all of them could receive funding in a new farm bill extension package, depending on how it is written.
Unlike the farm part of the farm bill, the food stamp program will likely not face an expiration crisis because the short-term CR — assuming it follows the pattern set by Congress last year — will include a provision to keep the food stamp program running for the new fiscal year under the terms of the old farm bill. The short-term CR could also carry a short-term extension for the Conservation or Wetlands Reserve Programs or other expiring farm bill programs, though it did not do so last year.
With the high likelihood that the current farm bill will expire on September 30 and the ongoing gridlock on the new farm bill due to disarray within the House GOP caucus, it is difficult at this point to project an obvious clear path forward for the new farm bill.
NSAC continues to advocate for a House-Senate conference on the new bill to begin immediately and for the House to appoint its conferees now. After two years of on again, off again travails, it is high time to get the job completed a new five-year bill signed into law. We have shared our views on critical conference issues with both Agriculture Committees. In the meantime, we will advocate for not allowing important programs to be shut down because the farm bill process is not yet complete, and we will continue to draw attention to the stranded programs that were already shut down by the farm bill extension passed at the beginning of 2013.