The New Year hopes for quick action on a new five-year farm bill in the first half of January are fading as negotiations on certain issues stall. At the beginning of this week, the House and Senate lead negotiators were making progress on a compromise bill, and there were rumors of a possible meeting on Thursday of the conference committee. As the week progressed, however, compromises on certain major issues eluded the negotiators, causing the completion of a new farm bill to be further delayed.
At Loggerheads on Dairy
One of the biggest obstacle to completion of a bill at the moment is the inability to find common ground on the basic approach to dairy policy. The fight is, at its most basic level, a fight between farmers and processors, with strong champions on both sides that could cause the whole farm bill process to collapse.
The lead spokesman for dairy issues is Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN), whose top priority is a dairy policy that includes a supply management program that would cut back production if there is a collapse in dairy prices. His program was included in the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill, but the supply management provision was stripped out on the House floor. A modified version of the full program, including the supply management function, is included in the Senate-passed bill. Championing the cause of the processors is House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who strongly opposes supply management and has referred to the dairy program overall as “Soviet-style” policy.
Tensions ran very deep this week, with Boehner announcing that if the conference bill contained supply management, then he would block the bill from coming to the House floor for the final vote. There is some speculation that Boehner’s adamant opposition to the dairy program may be based more on a desire to simply delay consideration of the farm bill, leading perhaps to another short-term extension of the old farm bill. It is difficult for outside observers to know with any certainty what the end game is for the House leadership.
Efforts to reach a compromise continue but there are no indications as yet that the major disagreements over the shape of dairy policy will be swiftly resolved.
Other Unresolved Issues
Top among the other unresolved issues is the issue of payment limit reform and who qualifies for commodity subsidies. The House and Senate bills both contain identical provisions to close loopholes that allow mega-farms to collect unlimited federal subsidies by doing an end around the per farm payment limitations included in farm bills for the last four decades. The provision to close the loopholes has strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, but a small number of conference committee members support the loopholes and unlimited subsidies, endangering the provision. NSAC supports the provisions in the House and Senate bill to close the loopholes, and strongly opposes any effort to weaken them.
Also unresolved is the status of the provision in the House bill that would repeal all fair livestock competition measures included in the 2008 Farm Bill (except those dealing with arbitration) as well as repealing all existing regulations based on the 2008 Farm Bill, barring implementation of new regulations, and barring USDA enforcement of existing law. This is an extraordinarily extreme measure that is blatantly anti-farmer and in support of unregulated market power by a few corporate giants. The Senate bill does not contain this provision, and NSAC strongly supports the Senate position and opposes any diminution of existing USDA authorities.
While we are cautiously optimistic about the funding levels for many of the innovative sustainable agriculture programs that have been stranded without funding for over a year, we will not know the specific funding details until a bill is released. We do know, however, that one of the few stranded programs that is still unresolved is the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program, which provides modest cost-share assistance to organic farmers and handlers to offset the costs of annual certification. The programs is a critical part of ensuring that organic food is grown domestically, that organic farmers and handlers of all sizes can respond to market demand, and that the cost of certification is not prohibitive for smaller businesses. NSAC strongly supports the program and the Senate proposal.
It now seems like the earliest that Congress will complete a farm bill is in early February. The farm bill is not on next week’s House agenda, and Congress is on recess during the week of January 20. With no House action anticipated next week, and Congress out of town the following, there are not enough days for the conference committee to meet, and for both the House and the Senate to vote on a bill in the next couple of weeks — unless the current stalemate on dairy changes and other issues are resolved quickly. Staff will continue to work on the bill and negotiations among the principals will continue, but no meetings of the full conference committee have been scheduled as yet.
There may be a chance that they would resolve all issues in private, without ever having a public conference committee meeting. In that scenario, it would be impossible to know how members weighed in on specific issues because it would all happen behind closed doors and without votes. Provided, however, that a majority of conferees were willing to sign the final product, there is nothing forcing them to actually have the conference committee meet to debate and vote.
NSAC continues to support and work towards completion of a full, five-year farm bill that includes farm subsidy and payment limit reform, excludes prohibitions on enforcing fair competition laws, provides robust funding for the stranded programs, and otherwise includes key ingredients from both the House and the Senate bills.
And What About Appropriations?
Last week, we indicated that we would have the details of the omnibus spending bill, including agriculture appropriations, this week. We now anticipate the details of the bill at the very beginning of next week, which would likely mean that the House and the Senate would vote on the omnibus spending bill next week, possibly by the January 15 deadline, bit if not, then there will likely be a very short-term extension of the previous continuing resolution to ensure that the government does not shutdown. We will let readers know about the agricultural funding decisions once the final bill is released.