WASHINGTON — This Sunday has been a date circled on the calendars of lawmakers writing federal farm policy all session long: it’s the day the current farm bill expires.
When Congress recessed last week, it became clear the deadline for approving a new farm bill would pass without one. So what happens to farmers and consumers come Monday morning? Well, not a lot right away, actually.
Because of the way the federal government makes subsidy payments, most farmers won’t be paid with or without a farm until their first harvest in 2013, by which time lawmakers, including Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, hope a new farm bill will have passed. Nearly 80 percent of the five-year farm bill’s $500 billion price tag goes toward funding nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (colloquially known as food stamps), but Congress passed a six-month spending resolution that funds the program — and the rest of the government — through March.
Kevin Paap, the president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said most Minnesota farmers have nothing to worry about until January at least. A delay like this is nothing new, he said; Congress didn’t pass its latest farm bill until December 2008, well after its deadline.
“This is nothing new, but it’s still as frustrating as it always is,” he said.
Peterson said there is at least one incentive for Congress to pass a farm bill in the lame duck session: If there isn’t a bill by Jan. 1, federal law requires the government to purchase surplus dairy products at rate twice as high as recent market prices.
Peterson: Boehner promised action
But Peterson said he hopes it won’t get to that. He said House Speaker John Boehner told him as early as this summer that the House would take up the farm bill when members return to Washington after the Nov. 6 elections.
“Boehner has told me since summer that that was his intention, to do it in the lame duck,” he said. “We have him on our side, that’s going to help.”
In June, the Senate passed its version of the farm bill, a $500 billion five-year bill that contained $23 billion in cuts. The bill ends direct subsidies to farmers, expands crop insurance programs and cuts $4.5 billion in funding from the $80 billion-a-year food stamps program.
The House Agriculture Committee approved its version of the bill in July. Like the Senate, it cuts direct payments and expands crop insurance, but at the insistence of House Republicans, cuts $16.5 billion from the food stamps program over 10 years. Unlike in the Senate, House leadership did not bring the bill to the floor.
Peterson and farm bill supporters had hoped to see the bill come up when lawmakers were in Washington this month, and Peterson said he expects there were enough votes to pass it if it had. Instead, House leadership has pushed off taking up the bill until after November’s elections, at which point the House will need to pass its bill so a joint House-Senate committee could write a compromise piece of legislation for final passage into law.
Peterson and the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, both say they oppose a short-term extension of current farm law, which would push the deadline for passing a new five-year bill into next year.
“It’s not going to get any easier next year,” Peterson said. “I don’t want to work on it another year.”
Stabenow said last week: “We would move quickly, as would the House, if we had to in 2013, but there’s no excuse not to get this done in the lame-duck. There’s just none. Absolutely none.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry