Farm Bill Update: Rites of Fall and Winter Miracles
By Patty Lovera
In what seems to be a new rite of fall, Farm Bill watchers are once again wondering how and if Congress can finish this bill before the end of the year. At the end of last week, talks between the leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture committees broke down, which means finishing the Farm Bill using the normal process in 2013 would be nothing short of a winter holiday miracle.
To recap: The 2008 Farm Bill expired on October 1, 2012. Then on New Year’s Day, a 9-month farm bill extension was included in the bill that was passed to fix the supposed “fiscal cliff.” But the extension didn’t cover everything that was in the 2008 bill, and left dozens of programs for sustainable and organic agriculture, beginning farmers and disaster assistance behind. And on October 1 of this year, that short-term extension expired too.
So once again, we are finishing the year with an expired Farm Bill, waiting to see if Congress can finish the process and pass a new bill before “permanent law” (from the 1930’s and 1940’s) kicks in and affects the price of farm commodities like milk.
With Congress in session for just a handful of days this year, they have a lot to do. The bill is currently in conference committee, which has to reconcile the very different versions passed by the House and Senate. The major sticking points are the commodity programs and nutrition programs.
On commodities, the are big differences between the House and Senate on what kind of role the government should play in the market for crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton. While both the House and Senate versions end direct payments to commodity producers (payments made every year regardless of crop prices) and emphasize subsidized crop insurance as the primary farm safety net, the House and Senate differ on more traditional programs. Where the Senate favors revenue stabilization, the House supports programs that pay farmers when crop prices dip below a set point.
One of the biggest points of debate seems to be how to calculate the payments to farmers in a way that complies with the World Trade Organization rules about farm subsidies. Missing from this process is any discussion of the real reforms we need, including restoring grain reserve programs that could be used to provide stability for farmers and rein in overproduction of these commodity crops.
On nutrition, the gap between the House and Senate is huge. The Senate bill would cut $4 billion from SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), while the House bill would cut almost $40 billion. This is a huge sticking point and Senate Democrats have vowed not to accept a cut that large and the President has threatened to veto any bill with such a cut.
And after those two big issues, comes a long list of hot topics from other sections of the bill:
Competitive Markets: The House version of the bill would prevent USDA enforcement of the Packers & Stockyards Act, an antitrust law covering livestock markets, and repeal the few remaining portions of the contract fairness rules that were required by the 2008 Farm Bill.
Country of Origin Labeling: The House version of the bill would require unnecessary new studies on the implementation of country of origin labeling and some members of the conference committee are trying to end country of origin labeling altogether.
Organic: The House and Senate versions differ on funding for a program to help new organic farms and processors offset the cost of organic certification, with the Senate version providing more funding for the critical cost share program. On organic research, the House bill has more funding.
King Amendment: A provision in the House version of the bill would prohibit state and local governments from setting standards or conditions on the production or manufacture of agriculture products.
Catfish Inspection: The House version of the bill would repeal a provision from the 2008 Farm Bill that created a USDA program to strengthen the inspection of domestic and imported catfish.
Food Safety Modernization Act Delay: The House version of the bill that would delay the implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act through duplicative studies.
Congress is on recess for Thanksgiving this week but the negotiations continue. Despite the current stalemate, at some point, the conference committee will come up with its version of the Farm Bill and the decisions they make will impact all aspects of the food system. Take action here to tell them the make sure they make the right choices.