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Monday, December 17, 2012

2012 proved to be a roller coaster ride for U.S. Farm Bill, leaving many in ag industry worried

By Tim Thornberry
KyForward correspondent

It’s a piece of federal legislation that governs agricultural and food guidelines for the country and is supposed to be passed every five years. Yet this year’s Farm Bill, which expired Sept. 30, failed to make passage through Congress leaving many in the ag industry frustrated and worried.

The process really began more than a year ago with the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction or so called “Super Committee.” Along with other federally funded programs, the committee was to consider reductions in the 2012 Farm Bill, a move seen by some as a way to keep deeper cuts in the bill from happening later on and by others as an out-and-out attempt to secretly pass the bill without its normal period of extensive debate.

Its reduction recommendations came from the House and Senate Agriculture Committees and totaled $23 billion. While the committee failed, a “draft” of sorts was in place for the legislation that would later pass out of the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee.

The Senate passed its version of the bill last summer, followed by the House Ag Committee and did it in a somewhat bipartisan manner.  

It was the full House that could not come to terms with the bill. The big difference lies in the amount of money cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) aka food stamps. The House wants more cuts than the Senate version allowed.

Only about 20 percent of the money associated with the Farm Bill goes to farming programs. The rest goes to SNAP funding.

Ultimately the bill was allowed to expire. Generally speaking, a farm bill covers commodity programs on a crop/marketing-year basis which means crops grown in 2012 and marketed in 2013 are not be affected with the expiration.

It has been suggested the bill could help with the “fiscal cliff” dilemma currently consuming Congress, this due to the cuts placed in the Senate and House Agriculture Committee versions.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said in a statement released last month, passing the bill would help in meeting such deficit challenges.

“If Congress can work together to pass the Farm Bill, it will create the trust and momentum we need to overcome gridlock and solve the challenges our country faces,” she said. “Passing a bipartisan Farm Bill that reduces the deficit by $23 billion is a significant first step in meeting the critical deficit reduction challenges our country must face head-on this year.”

During the recent Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation Annual Meeting, Aleta Botts, the agricultural policy outreach director at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture said the status on the bill is changing daily but one thing for sure, it’s being discussed.

She also said that as of Jan. 1 a thing called Permanent Law takes over if nothing is done in this current session. What that means is the Farm Bill that was passed in 1949 becomes the law of the land if nothing else happens. Things were quite a bit different 63 years ago and most agree they don’t want that to happen.

To avoid it, Congress can do a number of different things, noted Botts.

“One is an extension of the current bill. They can retroactively extend the last Farm Bill into however many crop years, however many months they want to,” she said. “That’s happened in the past and it can happen again. If they don’t want an extension, a real five year farm bill can happen. If you had asked me last week what I thought the prospects were, I would have said it looks like an extension, today my answer has changed.”

Her answer changed due to the conversations taking place between members of the House and Senate Ag Committees that are reportedly positive at this time. Botts quoted House Ag Committee Chair Frank Lucas as saying he is optimistic a Farm Bill can be passed as whatever big budget deal happens.

That is assuming the budget mess is dealt with. If not, an extension may be the best case scenario although it does not have the support of Stabenow. She said in a telephone press conference several weeks ago, anything short of the full bill is something she is not interested in.

“Just to make it very clear, we are going to do everything possible to get this done in the lame-duck session. Right now, 16 million people that work in agriculture are being left hanging by the House leadership despite the work, on a bipartisan basis of the House Committee and the bipartisan work of the Senate,” she said.

Time is running low, however. But not passing farm legislation in a timely fashion is more the norm for Congress. Five extensions of the 2002 bill were passed before the 2008 statute was completed. In fact, the Congressional Research Service noted that over the last 40 years only two farm bills (1973 and 1977) have been passed before the deadline.

Botts said there are advantages to passing a bill now as part of the larger fiscal legislation. One thing she said was that as the bill is written it will save the government money. That money could be used to offset the cost of the tax cuts that would be extended.

Another is no one really wants to be in a situation come Jan. 1 where citizens would be living under 1949 agriculture policy.

“The only reason that law is still on the books is to force (legislators) to negotiate to this point,” Botts said.



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