Farm bill expiration looms
Washington — When the current federal farm bill and its associated conservation programs expire at the end of September, what will be there to replace it remains unknown.
Congress, following an August recess, has reconvened, but most observers say it will be a limited stay, probably fewer than 10 days. And given that the House failed to approve a farm bill prior to the recess, it’s doubtful an agreement can be reached before members return to their respective districts for the final campaign push prior to the November election.
Most likely, experts say, the current farm bill will be extended for either six months or a year, neither of which option is particularly favorable for conservation across the country.
“We’re still hopeful that Congress takes action,” Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever’s vice president of governmental affairs, said earlier this week. That would require that the House pass a bill, House and Senate conferees agree on final language, and the full Congress approve it.
As predicted, given prior disagreements about aspects of the bill and the limited timeframe during which to settle the matter, alternatives are being discussed, Nomsen said.
Passing a new five-year bill, he said, would be “the best scenario for conservation.”
Earlier this week, members of conservation groups and farming groups planned to rally at the Capitol to support a new farm bill. The broad-ranging interests include PF, Ducks Unlimited, and The Nature Conservancy, as well as diverse farming groups, from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, and several others.
According to the collective “Farm Bill Now” groups, “Calling the farm bill the ‘farm bill’ suggests its impact is limited only to farms and to the rural areas to which they are so closely tied. It’s really a jobs bill. A food bill. A conservation bill. A trade bill. In other words, it’s a bill that affects every American.”
The conservation signature of the farm bill is the Conservation Reserve Program, one that peaked at about 37 million set-aside acres five years ago, but has since dipped below 30 million and will see more losses with contract expirations this month.
Regardless of the pressure being applied to members of Congress by a variety of sectors, Steve Kline, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s director of the center for agriculture and private land, said he’s doubtful the House will consider a “full” farm bill this month, but rather seek an extension.
“Expiration or an extension are the only two real options at this point,” Kline said Tuesday, adding that an extension could be for a full year, or half a year.
“We’d very much prefer a full farm bill,” he said.
There are several reasons. First, if the current farm bill is allowed to expire, gone with it would be the Wetland Reserve Program and the Grassland Reserve Program, which would lose authorizations, he said.
If the current bill is extended, less money may be available for conservation programs when a new bill is considered, according to Kline. How much could be lost will depend on whether or not Congress goes forward with a plan that includes “sequestration,” or across-the-board program cuts. And a wildcard in that equation: If defense spending is excluded from sequestration and other programs, conservation-related included, would absorb that exclusion.
Either way, delaying a full farm bill until next year is a “huge risk,” Kline said.
If taken up next year, the farm bill would be considered by a new Congress, with possible changes in the majority party of the House and/or Senate.
“I don’t think (passing a farm bill) gets much easier, but it can get much harder,” Kline said.
It’s possible the bill could be considered after the general election in November, before newly elected officials take office, but such lame-duck action is unlikely, he added.
What might happen in days ahead? Most observers don’t believe much. Besides, the same issues remain – factions within the House lean opposite ways. Some House Republicans believe the House Ag Committee’s approved farm bill doesn’t cut enough, while some House Democrats believe too much is cut from the nutrition (food stamp) title of the bill, which consumes about 70 percent of the funding.
A Senate bill was passed earlier this summer.
In the next couple days, Kline said, the House and Senate most likely will pass resolutions to keep government up and running come Oct. 1 (the beginning of the fiscal year), including CRP, but “that may be the end of this Congress,” he said.