Friday, July 27, 2012

Drought, Farm Bill and Disaster Assistance Chess

With the latest drought map and report showing widespread drought intensification over the central United States, House Republican leaders were on track to scheduling a potential vote for next week on disaster relief for livestock and specialty crop producers (several such disaster assistance programs that were in the 2008 Farm Bill expired last year). And several key House and Senate leaders have made incremental moves during the week implying that such a disaster relief vote could clear a heretofore blocked path to enacting a Farm Bill.  However, the end game and ultimate scope of that farm-food legislation are still very murky.  

Here is how the drought-farm-food chess game played out this week on Capitol Hill.

At his weekly press conference, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said that he believed the House would address the livestock disaster situation before going home for the month-long August recess, which begins at the end of next week.  However, the Speaker avoided answering any questions regarding whether the disaster relief bill would be part of a full, five-year Farm Bill, would be incorporated within a "simple" one-year Farm Bill extension, or would be a stand-alone disaster relief measure.  Boehner simply said that Republican leaders were working with House Agriculture Committee leaders "on an appropriate path forward."

Following the Boehner press conference, one of those Committee leaders, House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) said the short-term, one-year Farm Bill extension option was the most logical way to move aid quickly to drought-impacted farmers and ranchers before the August Congressional recess. Lucas has supposedly since been busy whipping support for the one-year extension option (with disaster aid for livestock producers and specialty crop producers wrapped into the extension bill).

Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee, had until this week steadfastly opposed the one-year extension route, but signaled Thursday that he would support the Republican-backed one-year Farm Bill extension if that House bill would then be used as a vehicle to negotiate a larger comprehensive Farm Bill deal with the Senate. Peterson stated, "I’m against doing an extension, but it’s okay if it gets us to a point of being able to conference a bill in August." Under that scenario, the Senate could receive the House's one-year Farm Bill extension and then substitute it’s own five-year Farm Bill version (passed in June) in place of the House's language. Then the matter could go to a conference committee for “quick” resolution.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) also had been sharply critical of the idea of a simple one-year extension, saying that approach would continue the past system of direct cash payments to farmers, something that the Senate-passed Farm Bill would end. However, following Peterson's statement, Stabenow made her move, and on Thursday officially backed the one-year extension suggestion, noting, “If the House intends to send us a bill that will be used to negotiate the Farm Bill during August, I am open to that approach.  However, a short-term extension is bad for farmers and our agricultural economy."

Stay tuned.  The next move will likely be up to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).  Cantor has also expressed interest in bringing some disaster aid bill to the floor next week, if it could be done without increasing the deficit.  But he has to date specifically avoided any discussion of the full Farm Bill or one-year exptension.

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