The fate of the farm bill seems to be largely up in the air as lawmakers inch ever closer to August recess without a concrete plan for a way forward.
Closed-door talks are reportedly ongoing, but no decisions have been reached regarding the farm bill that has been in limbo since earlier this month when the House passed a "farm-only" farm bill without the controversial nutrition title.
Lawmakers have been relatively quiet on the issue, but House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., Thursday offered a little glimpse of the House Republicans' plan, noting a nutrition title bill would "eventually" be considered in order to come together on a conference with the Senate.
But even if conferees are named and the wheels start turning, three University economists point out that there's going to be at least a handful of big policy differences, aside from the spread that separates the Senate's proposed $4 billion in nutrition title cuts and the House Republicans' desired $20 billion.
The economists – Purdue's Mike Boehlje, University of Illinois' Gary Schnitkey and The Ohio State University's Carl Zulauf – said in a July 18 webinar that there are three major elements that will frame the farm bill debate in conference.
First, focus of discussion will rest on fundamental differences in each branch's "keep-cull" priorities.
For example, the Senate insists that the nutrition title stay with farm policy, that current permanent farm bill laws remain in place, and that reforms include revenue support. In contrast, the House policies have separated nutrition and farm policies, repealed permanent farm bill laws, and focused on price support.
The economists point out that the price vs. revenue support is a fundamental difference that could have a big impact on decisions in crop planting, given that the compensation structure would be significantly altered.
Second, and similarly, the overall direction the farm bill is headed for payout structures is in contrast to previous bills. The currently proposed bill puts the focus on risk management, as coverage would likely decrease from the current ACRE program, economists said.
Third, a difference that received significant discussion prior to House and Senate votes, is the issue of payout structures for Southern farmers growing cotton, peanuts and rice. Some stakeholders in the debate support the idea, viewing it as a transitional step that would unite Southern farmers with Midwestern farmers under a similar support policy.
Doing so would compensate for the loss of the higher direct payments to which Southern farmers are accustomed, the professors said.
Going forward, the professors explained several plausible scenarios for the farm bill:
1. The conference committee reaches an agreement
2. The old farm bill continues
3. The old farm bill is extended, possibly with a reduction in direct payments
4. Current law could be revoked causing an end to commodity programs and leaving crop insurance as the safety net
The future of farm policy has been relatively muddy over the past two years, between farm bill extensions, bill-splitting and feet-dragging, but Zulauf said the potential for a two-year extension of the farm bill is a very real scenario, given 2014 is an election year.
View the professors' full presentation here, and read more on the farm bill's past:
House Passes 'Farm-Only' Farm Bill
Proposition of Farm Bill Split Has Long Road Ahead
Means to An End for Senate Farm Bill?
House Rejects Farm Bill 195-234