Saturday, November 17, 2012

Stalled farm bill could spell chaos for farmers

By Stephanie Whiteside / / @stephgwhiteside
As Congress gathers for the lame-duck session, one piece of legislation to keep an eye on is the farm bill. The Senate passed its version of the farm bill, but the House has yet to bring the legislation up for a vote, and it's a move that could create chaos for farmers.
The farm bill is a vast and complicated piece of legislation that comes around once every five years. Included in the bill are provisions for agriculture subsidies, crop insurance, conservation programs and nutrition assistance programs, among other things. This is only the second time since 1973 that the farm bill has been allowed to expire; in 2007, the farm bill expired on Sept. 30, and an extension wasn't passed until Dec. 26 of that year.
The 2008 farm bill expired at the end of September 2012, and although the Senate passed the legislation, the House has failed to bring its version to the floor for a vote, saying there weren't enough votes to pass the bill.
Not everyone is so convinced. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, says he met with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Republican committee members Rick Berg, R-N.D., and Kristi Noem, R-S.D., because they believe the votes are present to pass the bill.
"There's one person who has the authority to make that decision, and that's the majority leader," Welch said on bringing the bill up for a vote. "There's never been an agriculture bill passed by the Agriculture Committee that was not brought to the floor for vote."
Rep. Welch on the farm bill as
a symptom of a dysfunctional Congress:
Watch "Viewpoint with Eliot Spitzer" weeknights at 8E/5P on Current TV.
There is some breathing room for passing the bill. Even though the 2008 farm bill expired on Sept. 30, some programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are funded through a continuing resolution that keeps the government running on last year's numbers, which lasts until February.
But some of the programs supported in the 2008 bill are already affected, have already stopped running. Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, points to disaster assistance, conservation programs and many of the efforts to support sustainable farming, including training for beginning farmers, support for organic agriculture and outreach to socially disadvantaged farmers.
"In order to make the math work, these programs were hardwired to end unless specifically renewed," Lovera told Current.
The effects of the expiration of these programs have been minimized because of the timing; there isn't a harvest currently happening and farmers have yet to start planting crops for spring. Since programs like SNAP have continued, there haven't been many visible effects from the expiration of the farm bill.
"Official Washington is being very calm," Lovera said. "But if I were a farmer, I'd be worried. Farmers live on credit."
Winter, Lovera explained, is when farmers will begin to go to banks in search of loans for spring crops. Without a farm bill, banks will have more difficulty assessing risk and factoring in the kinds of safety nets and insurance provided by subsidy and conservation programs. Farmers may find it more difficult to make decisions for the year ahead, and for areas of the country where spring planting begins in February or March, those decisions are coming up fast.
With the House bill still not up for a vote, there are a few things that could happen before the February 2013 deadline. The House could bring the farm bill up for vote, something Rep. Welch believes is possible in a lame-duck session.
"Congress has a job, and that's to vote yea or nay and our constituents can hold us accountable," Welch told Current. "Delay on this bill is dangerous."
But even if the bill does pass the House, it would still need to be reconciled with the Senate version, and there are substantial differences between the two. SNAP funding, in particular, has been controversial, with the Senate version cutting $4 billion from the program over 10 years and the House version making $16 billion in cuts — a number some conservatives have said is still too low. If the House bill passes a vote, the House and Senate versions will have to come to some agreement, with cuts affecting families that rely on food stamps.
The other option would be to extend the 2008 farm bill and give Congress more time to develop a new bill. For SNAP, this would mean funding the program at current levels, without increases or cuts.
"Some people say they won't take an extension," Lovera said. "But there's the fiscal cliff and a new session of Congress being seated — there's a lot to distract them from buckling down and passing the bill."
(Photo: Getty Images)

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