Thursday, September 20, 2012

No Farm Bill Vote and No Immediate Repercussions - History Repeating Itself

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced this morning that there won’t be a Farm Bill vote in the House this month, killing prospects of working out an agreement with the Senate and its already-passed version of a new Farm Bill.  House Republican leadership has not moved away from its resistance to holding what would undoubtedly be a contentious vote before the November election.

An attempt by a bipartisan coalition of House Members to force the measure onto the floor through a "discharge petition" process won’t have nearly enough time before the pre-election recess starting next week to gather the 218 signatures required to force the bill's consideration (58 House Members signed the petition through September 19 - an updated list of petition signers can be seen here).

The consequence of the Congressional stalemate (an expired 2008 Farm Bill at midnight, September 30) won't become immediately evident before the November 6 national election, or even before the end of this calendar year. That added buffer providing more time for Congress to act exists because (although the effective dates of the current law match those of the Federal fiscal year) the 2008 Farm Bill covers all of this calendar year's (2012) crops.  Additionally, Congressional appropriations can be utilized to fund many of the major Farm Bill provisions, whether they are authorized or not.

A July 25, 2012 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report entitled, “Possible Extension or Expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill” explains the authority and funding provisions this way.  First, “(t)he last year of support under the 2008 farm bill’s commodity programs is the 2012 crop year. This makes the effective deadline for enacting a new farm bill the time the first commodity is harvested in 2013, not the fiscal year. Exceptions include dairy programs that expire with the fiscal year or on December 31, 2012."  Second, the CRS report goes on to explain,"(m)any of the farm bill’s nutrition programs rely on annual appropriations regardless of whether they use mandatory or discretionary funds. Thus, a regular appropriation could be sufficient to continue most of the major programs’ operations if the 2008 farm bill expires. Exceptions include a farmers’ market nutrition program for seniors, and a few pilot or other small nutrition programs.”(emphasis added). 

The Continuing Resolution (CR) passed by the House last week (and that the Senate is currently considering and will pass by the end of the week) will keep the Federal government running through March 27, 2013, and continue to fund many of the Farm Bill's key nutrition, farm support and conservation programs, even absent the authority of a Farm Bill.  From a Farm Bill conservation perspective, the CR would allow no new acreage sign-ups for the mandatory-funded Conservation Stewardship Program and Wetlands Reserve, Grassland Reserve, and Chesapeake Bay Conservation programs, the last three of which will lack spending authority after September 30. 

The CR also will also cut $350 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, $35 million from the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and $50 million cut from the Farmland Protection Program, thus reducing the Farm Bill Conservation Title budget baseline under a future bill.

Explaining the Farm Bill provision time shift phenomenon described in the July CRS report, Mary Kay Thatcher, director of congressional affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told National Public Radio earlier this week, “We actually have until about January 1 before we run into a lot of administrative problems with this bill reverting to some very high prices."

If you think this has all happened before, you're correct. On September 30, 2007, the 2002 Farm Bill expired, and an extension of the law wasn't passed until December 26, 2007.  The 2002 law was extended five more times before a new, 2008 Farm Bill was signed into law on June 18 (see the timeline, below). 

2008 Farm Bill Enactment Time Line
Click to Enlarge
Some farm and conservation organizations see the potential for good coming out of the Congressional indecision, allowing them the added time to apply political pressure on Congress to reach agreement on a comprehensive, five-year Farm Bill during the lame duck session starting in mid-November. But it is just as likely that a short-term (three-month to one-year) extension of the current law will be agreed upon during the lame duck; just in time to avoid the repercussions from a reversion in January to the enormously high crop subsidy levels of the 1940s.

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