Eight legislative days remain before the current farm bill expires on Sept. 30. That’s scant time for the House – whose leadership, as of Monday (Sept. 10), has again refused floor time for a farm bill passed out of the House Agriculture Committee in July -- to pass farm legislation and then conference with the Senate. Even a disastrous drought across much of farm country has failed to move the House to act on the legislation.
But that can change, insists “Farm Bill Now,” a recently-formed, broad coalition of agriculture and rural advocacy groups. Hoping to move the needle, the coalition will hold a rally on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
While not disputing those claiming slim chances for a new farm bill before the end of the month, “we’re advocates for farmers and ranchers,” says Mark Maslyn, Executive Director of Public Policy with the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). “You have to believe and continue make your presence known. There are enough challenges and problems up here (in D.C.) and issues to deal with that if (Congress) doesn’t hear and see you, they’ll move on to work on something else.
“There are no guarantees we’ll get the new farm bill considered in September. But we’re trying to change that. … You hear different things on the street and opinions expressed on the Hill. The effort and focus we have is that Congress has some time yet in September and they ought to take advantage of it and get a new farm bill done.”
“We’re like everyone else -- just waiting to see what will happen when (Congress) gets back into town,” says Mike Mason, Director of Communications with the Farm Credit Council. “There has been some hopeful talk from leadership but (how far that goes is) unknown.
“We’re hoping to know a lot more next more at the Farm Bill Now rally. We’re hopeful some of the leaders will be there to speak and create momentum that will be helpful.”
Chuck Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), has been telling members that “given the number of days Congress has left in this session before they adjourn for the elections I think it will be very difficult to complete passage of (a new) farm bill.”
Having served as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture under President George W. Bush, Conner certainly knows the difficulties of passing a farm bill. “You have to be realistic, looking at the past farm bills.
“The House (Agriculture) Committee-passed (version) is a much more traditional farm bill. It relies heavily on target prices. The Senate farm bill goes to an entirely new concept of a shallow loss sort of program.
“Just reconciling the differences between those two fundamental concepts will require huge decisions, first of all. That can’t just be slapped together.
“So, I see it being very, very difficult to get House action and then get the fundamental differences between the two (versions) in eight legislative days. My word to members is: don’t expect passage before Congress adjourns.”
What about the possibilities of reverting back to 1949 law or passing an extension of the 2008 farm bill?
“There will be some kind of stop-gap measure,” says Conner. “Reverting to the 1949 Act is not an option under any circumstance. That won’t happen.
“Something will be done if we can’t get this wrapped up soon to ensure we don’t jump off the cliff, so to speak, and revert back to antiquated law.”
Preferences, ag lenders
Asked if the AFBF has a preference for either the Senate or House farm bills, Maslyn is noncommittal. “Right now, we’re just trying to get the House to act. There are things in both bills that we like. The next logical step is just to get the bill to the House floor, get it passed and move to a conference. The House bill could change considerably before it’s passed and on the House floor.
“So, I won’t say what our preference is at this point. We’ll be looking at things provision-by-provision. But the first challenge is to get the House to consider a new farm bill.”
Conner says there are provisions in both farm bill versions “that we like better than others.
“In the House bill there are some specialty crop provisions that our fruit and vegetable members in California are particularly supportive of.
“Other provisions in the Senate bill (are backed by other members).
“We’re pleased that both the House and Senate, for the most part, appear to lave crop insurance fundamentally intact. They didn’t attempt to extract big savings from crop insurance. I think that’s proven to be a good policy and one we support – particularly in years like this where crop insurance will be what keeps a lot of producers in business.”
As for the chances for Congress to pass disaster legislation if it fails approve a new farm bill, Conner points to comments made by Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Stabenow “has indicated she hopes the farm bill can be completed with disaster assistance before the elections.
“She has further said that if that can’t happen it would be her intent to attempt to pass separate disaster legislation. That would be particularly be targeted towards livestock producers without access to crop insurance and need some additional help to get through this very difficult patch we’re in relative to the drought of 2012.”
Meanwhile, as farmers look to the 2013 cropping season, agriculture lenders have become more vocal in pushing Congress for farm bill stability.
“I’ve heard directly and indirectly from (lenders) about their concerns,” says Maslyn. “We share those.
“We’ve said for a long time that farmers and ranchers are businessmen and women running substantial investments in land and capital, equipment and labor. They need predictability and certainty. Right now, the Congress, House and Senate are standing in the way (of such certainty).”
Mason is on the same page. “Because our farm credit system institutions are cooperatives – owned and controlled by the farmers and ranchers who borrow from them – we very much understand the financial decisions that go into farming. We work with our borrowers as partners in making those decisions.
“A lot of the long-term decisions can’t be made until and unless there is certainty about federal farm policy. That means a lot of people will be faced with the next crop year, equipment purchases and things like that when so much is up in the air.”