Congress Fails to Advance Federal Farm Bill or Disaster Assistance Bill
Every five years, Congress takes up the Farm Bill which covers food and agriculture policy under the purview of the United States Department of Agriculture. The current 2008 Farm Bill’s financial support programs are set to expire on September 30, 2012 unless they are re-authorized by Congress. In recent weeks, passage of a new Farm Bill received extensive attention given both the expiration date and record drought conditions that have plagued the U.S. agriculture industry. Recently, more than half the nation's counties had federal disaster designations that included most in Wisconsin largely because of the drought. Unfortunately, neither the expiration deadline nor the severe drought conditions stopped the ongoing partisan gridlock in Washington, and Congress departed for a five-week August recess without having taken the critical votes needed to pass either a new comprehensive compromise farm support bill or a limited disaster assistance relief bill. This article provides an overview of the legislative action that took place prior to the August recess on three key House and Senate bills including:
• H.R. 6083 - Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012 (“FARRM Bill”);
• H.R. 6233 - Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2012 (“ADA Bill”);
• S. 3240 - Agriculture Reform, Food & Jobs Act of 2012 (“ARFJ Bill”); and
it provides an update on the outcome of the summer recess and September negotiations.
On July 12, 2012, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee passed their new comprehensive bipartisan five-year FARRM Bill. The cost of the Committee’s FARRM Bill was $491 billion and contained $36.5 billion in savings over 10 years through program cuts and reductions that included $14 billion in cuts to the commodity title, $6 billion in cuts to the conservation title and $16.5 billion in cuts to the nutrition title. The FARRM Bill eliminated highly criticized direct payments and replaced it with new price and revenue support programs, restored the expired disaster relief program, and cut $16.5 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (“SNAP”) or food stamps.
In the House at large, Republican farm state lawmakers and some Democrats criticized the Committee FARRM Bill and indicated the impact of enormous program changes and cuts would be disastrous to those most in need, while some Republican conservatives objected to the high cost and questioned whether the cuts were deep enough. Given this division, House Republican leaders who control the chamber were reluctant to bring the controversial Committee FARRM Bill to the full floor out of concern it could go down in defeat right before the November elections. Instead, House Republican leadership maneuvered to quell criticism of the stalemate and turned to consider either quick passage of a one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill, or a simple stand-alone disaster relief bill.
On July 31, 2012, with resistance from many conservative Republicans over a one year renewal of the current 2008 Farm Bill, and after several Democrats announced their opposition to this measure, House Republican leaders dropped the renewal plan and instead pressed for immediate short-term disaster assistance for drought-stricken farmers and ranchers. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas encouraged his colleagues to support the ADA Bill saying, “My priority remains to get a long-term five-year farm bill on the books and put those policies in place, but the most pressing business before us is to provide disaster assistance to those impacted by the drought conditions who are currently exposed.”
On August 2, 2012, the Republican controlled House passed their scaled-down short-term $383 million ADA Bill to assist farmers whose livestock losses and feed expenses had increased due to the drought conditions. The ADA Bill would have continued programs that had already expired, those that indemnify livestock and forage programs, provided some assistance to producers of a handful of other crops, and it would have been paid for through the placement of caps on conservation programs in the current farm law.
In turn, Democrats who control the Senate refused to take up the House ADA Bill before their August recess. The Senate Democratic leaders indicated they preferred the House had taken up their sweeping five-year ARFJ Bill that had passed the full Senate on June 21, 2012 with overwhelming bipartisan support. Senate Democrat leaders were quick to fault House Republican leaders for failing to consider the broader legislation in time.
The $500 billion Senate ARFJ Bill cut spending by approximately $25 billion over 10 years, including $15 billion in cuts to the commodity title, $6 billion to conservation and $4.5 billion to nutrition programs. The Senate cuts were achieved primarily by replacing direct payments with an agriculture risk coverage program which protects farmers against losses in revenue, boosting crop insurance, and cutting the SNAP or food stamps.
Senate Democrats said they preferred their ARFJ Bill because it financed dozens of price support and crop insurance programs for farmers and food assistance for low-income families, and it provided more robust drought relief to other agricultural sectors. Senate Democrats also objected to the House Republican’s ADA Bill because it had deeper cuts to food stamps and offset costs through conservation fund cuts.
Moments after the House passed the ADA Bill, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, took to the Senate floor and said she will work informally with House Agriculture legislators over the August recess to try to put together a new measure to present to Congress.
Although Congressional leaders in both chambers had indicated they would continue to work on the issues surrounding the Farm Bill during the summer recess, big questions remained as to whether or not they could muster the votes needed to pass a bill when Congress returned from recess in September, but it seemed more likely that a vote could be delayed until later in the year given that election season was well underway. Upon return to Congress in early September, Senate and House officials indicated that compromise negotiations over the summer recess were not fruitful. Then, on Friday, September 21st Congress left town again without consideration of a farm bill which has left the current farm bill to expire on September 30th. House Speaker John Boehner indicated they would deal with the farm bill after the November elections because he didn’t believe he had the 218 votes needed to pass either an extension or new legislation. In response, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack expressed concerns that Congress would not be able to pass a farm bill in the upcoming lame duck session either. In short, an unsuccessful lame duck session would mean that the measure would have to wait until a new Congress is sworn in, and the new Congress would have to start over again to develop a new farm bill.
We will continue to monitor and report on substantive developments surrounding the Farm Bill as it progresses through the legislative process. In the interim, below are links that farmers can use to access drought information and assistance:
• USDA’s Disaster and Drought Assistance programs
• University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension:
• Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources