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September 17th, 2012

Farm Bill Update: Congress Continues to Kick the Can Down the Road


Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

By Patty Lovera

Things have gotten even weirder, which for this Farm Bill cycle is really saying something.  Here’s what’s going on.

The current Farm Bill (passed in 2008) expires at the end of September. Congress has not yet passed a new version of the bill. And they plan to leave town at the end of the week and not come back until after the election.

So passing a new Farm Bill is at the top of the to-do list for this week, right? Not exactly. The next move in the process belongs to the House, which needs to vote on the version of the bill the House Agriculture Committee adopted in July (the full Senate passed their version of the bill in June). But the bill is not on the House schedule for this week.

Short of passing a new Farm Bill, Congress could adopt an extension to the 2008 bill, giving themselves more time to come up with a new bill but keeping most existing farm policy in effect (there are some serious downsides to passing an extension, including several good programs for conservation, organic, and beginning farmers that do not continue, even with an extension of the 2008 bill).

They could pass a stand-alone bill to address the need for “disaster programs” to help farmers and livestock producers deal with the drought that is wreaking havoc in large parts of the country. The House passed a disaster bill before leaving town for the August recess, but it would pay for disaster assistance to livestock producers by taking money from conservation programs that have already been drastically cut in recent budgets. The Farm Bill passed by the Senate includes disaster provisions, so the Senate is not very motivated to move on the House disaster proposal.

Or they could let the current Farm Bill expire, which means that farm policy automatically reverts to a 1949 version of the Farm Bill, a drastic change from current policy. For years, this was always presented as some kind of nuclear-option, with consequences for the food system that were so dire that no one would ever allow it to happen. Now, members on both sides of the aisle are floating expiration as a trial balloon and mapping out how long it would take before programs like dairy payments, commodity payments, or food stamps are affected (the answer is different for all of them, due to specifics of how those programs are set up and funded, but these large programs would not be affected immediately.) 

So by the end of the week, we will know whether Congress will allow the current Farm Bill to expire, or whether they will pass an extension to give themselves more time.  Either way, the Farm Bill will be on the growing list of issues they have to deal with when they come back for a lame-duck session after the election.

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