Next Two Weeks Crucial in Farm Bill Talks

Budget committees key to getting farm bill done before Christmas, with farm bill consensus needed by Thanksgiving.

Congressional agriculture leaders continued their work this week to hammer out an agreement on a 2013 Farm Bill, with the Democratic ag leaders in both chambers saying they hope to have a conference product by Thanksgiving.

However it looks as though the Budget Committees may hold the key to opening the door for final passage, said Charlie Stenholm at a Farm Foundation Forum on the farm bill Nov. 6.

Stenholm, no stranger to farm bill conferences as a former House Agriculture Committee chair and now lobbyist, said the budget committees don't have to solve the big budget mess, but do need to address immediate spending concerns.

The budget committees and leadership need to have a number on specific spending levels for the farm bill before anything can be finalized, Stenholm said.

"And it has to happen sooner rather than later." He explained that the committee doesn't have the luxury of waiting until their self-imposed deadline of Dec. 13 if the farm bill conference is expected to work out its own farm bill before another dairy cliff presents itself in January and other components of the permanent law come knocking.

The National Chicken Council projected that the two weeks beginning this Tuesday (Nov. 12) are likely to determine whether Congress will finish the farm bill this year. Both the House and the Senate will be in session during that time, but both chambers are scheduled to leave on Nov. 22 for the Thanksgiving break. That schedule would mean that members would return on Dec. 9 for another two-week session before they are expected to depart on Dec. 20 for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Although the House- and Senate-passed farm bills do not expire at the end of December because the congressional session will continue for another year, Congress is under pressure to finish the farm bill by then.  That pressure is, in part, to avoid another round of headlines about milk prices skyrocketing if permanent farm laws from 1938 and 1949 go into effect.

Both Senate Agriculture Committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said in the press this week they want to get a deal substantially done before the Thanksgiving break, which would give it the optimum chance of actually being completed before year’s end.

Stabenow sits on both the budget committee conference and farm bill conference committees, offering her a unique position at both of the tables.

Last year Stabenow was furious with leadership when a farm bill extension was thrown into the fiscal solution that offered no reform or savings. Both her and her counterpart House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas have both said the text of any farm bill will be theirs to write this year. 

At the forum, Joe Outlaw, Texas A&M agricultural policy specialist, shared that how to handle the dairy provisions and nutrition funding remains the biggest obstacles for conferees to overcome. Outlaw has done work for both sides of Congress analyzing proposals and counterproposal and said the differences are minimal. Outlaw added it's not out of the question to expect the farm bill to be done before Christmas, but the budget process needs to bring forth guidance.

Congress only has until Jan. 15 to figure out how to fund the government for the remainder of the fiscal year or face another shutdown, as the continuing resolution that funds the government at the present time expires on that date. Presently, the Senate is expected to return Jan. 6, while the House is scheduled to come back into session on Jan. 7.

Stenholm said Jan. 15 also offers the solution to overturn sequestration cuts set to again go into effect. Nobody likes sequestration he said, but a whole lot of folks would prefer it over a poor budget. That fact could be the pry that gives the farm bill a "51% chance of passing via regular order," Stenholm said.

The number from the budget committee is crucial as it gives the committees the ability to spend the max ability while still benefiting all that they can from within that number. "And compromises will be forced on those policy differences," he contended.

Outlaw added that while he would like to believe Congress could come to some compromises on food programs, the realistic path forward likely will be for the farm bill to be included in must-pass larger legislation.

Jon Scholl, former president of American Farmland Trust, added there's too much controversy and major issues left on the agenda without enough time. He did express some sense of optimism with some political momentum that the government's got to pass something. In the end, it will likely be that the farm bill will need to capitalize on whatever opportunity it can, likely in the form of one of the larger bills. "There's too much baggage built up for the farm bill to be done on its own," Scholl added.

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