The congressional month-long August recess is just a week away. In more normal times, as those types of deadlines loom, deals get done on Capitol Hill. Not so this year. The path forward on a new five-year farm bill and on the set of appropriations bills to fund the government for the coming fiscal year are clear as mud. With the federal debt ceiling to be hit this fall, it promises, sadly, to be another season of manufactured, interlocking crises in the nation’s Capitol.
Unless something breaks on the farm bill next week, the situation upon Congress’ return after Labor Day will be quite stark. There will be a total of nine legislative days before the farm bill and before all the appropriations bills, including agriculture, expire at the stroke of midnight on October 1. To see why nine days is not a rosy prospect, let’s review where things stand, starting with the farm bill.
Farm Bill Recap
The Senate passed its 5-year farm bill back on June 10. The House then defeated its version of the farm bill ten days later. The House majority party then stripped the nutrition and food stamp title out of the bill and brought it back to floor where, despite a rule prohibiting any amendments to the bill, it passed on a party-line vote on July 11.
Since that time, a House Republican-only rump group has been meeting to discuss a possible nutrition title-only bill to bring to the House floor separate from the farm bill. Presumably, if successful, that bill would then be joined with their farm-only farm bill in conference with the Senate’s comprehensive bill. To date, however, the rump group has reported very little progress and, in fact, members of the group say there is no chance they will have a product prior to September, if then.
Will a Farm Bill Conference Happen?
House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) has made it abundantly clear that if the House has failed to adopt a nutrition bill by August, then the House should go directly to conference with the Senate, without any House position on the nutrition title or food stamp spending. In such a conference, the Senate position would very likely prevail on the nutrition title, and food stamp budget cuts would be modest.
House Republican leadership, however, has said nothing to back up their Chairman on this point, and hence there is little reason to hope a conference to work out a final bill will start anytime soon. It also appears to some close observers of the process that House Republican leadership remains divided over whether or not to ever go to conference on the farm bill.
The clock is ticking loudly now, and by September it will be louder still. The Senate, on a bipartisan basis, is begging and pleading to go to conference and get a final bill worked out. In fact, the Senate is expected to name its conferees next week.
Based on the rumor mill, those Senate conferees will be, in addition to Democratic Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (MI), Pat Leahy (VT), Tom Harkin (IA), Max Baucus (MT), Sherrod Brown (OH), Amy Klobuchar (MN), and Michael Bennet (CO). On the Republican side, in addition to Ranking Member Thad Cochran (MS), the expected conferees are Pat Roberts (KS), Saxby Chambliss (GA), John Boozman (AR), and John Hoeven (ND).
Of course it takes two to tango and takes two houses and two parties to get to conference, and while House Democrats and the more bipartisan Senate want to get started, House Republicans are still seemingly slow walking the process. At this point in time, there appears to be no hope that the House will name conferees next week and thus no action until September at the earliest, other than perhaps some staff meetings during August recess.
As it did last year, House Republican inaction raises the prospect of the need for a farm bill extension. Last year, Congress let the farm bill expire on October 1 and left it in that state of limbo until January 1, when it enacted a really awful nine-month extension that itself expires this October 1.
House Chairman Lucas has called for enactment of a short term extension in September, to provide more time to work things out, but Senate Chairwoman Stabenow has so far said she will not agree to any more extensions. That leads to the increasingly likely prospect that the farm bill will again expire, throwing many programs into turmoil.
Much hangs in the balance in terms of completing a new full, five-year bill. For instance –
- both bills include historic commodity program payment limit reform, a consolidated conservation easement program with permanent funding, and a directive for USDA to create a new crop insurance option for highly diversified farms;
- the House bill includes higher funding for beginning farmer, farmers market, and organic research programs, as well as important pilot farm-to-school pilot programs and microloans for young and local food farmers;
- the Senate bill includes higher funding for rural development, renewable energy, and organic farmer cost share;
- the Senate bill also includes critical crop insurance reforms, including reduced subsidies for millionaires and conservation accountability and prairie protection provisions;
- the House bill includes draconian cuts to the Conservation Stewardship Program and a radical anti-farmer provision that would essentially end USDA’s role in maintaining competitive markets and fair agricultural contracts;
- and the list goes on and on.
Much remains to be sorted out in the House-Senate conference, but for now it all remains on hold while House Republicans decide what if anything they are going to do with respect to the food stamp program.
The annual appropriations bills, including agriculture, are, if anything, even more of a mess than the farm bill, hard as that is to imagine.
The House and Senate starting point on this year’s funding bills is $91 billion apart, with the House aiming to cut government programs, other than defense, way below the levels agreed to for the current fiscal year, including the across-the-board sequestration cuts. The House GOP levels would bring non-defense spending to a level 12 percent below this year’s levels inclusive of sequestration. Those mega cuts play themselves out across all the non-defense bills, including agriculture. Hence, the House agriculture spending bill is a billion dollars lower than the Senate version. The difference in food and agriculture spending levels, while big, are nothing compared to the huge differences on health and human services or transportation.
With no clear strategy for how to resolve these gigantic differences, and no hopes of the two houses ever going to conference to resolve their vastly different budgets that form the starting point for appropriations bills, no floor action has been scheduled in either house for agricultural appropriations. The Senate has been able to pass some of its appropriations bills with a level of bipartisan support, but whether it will take the time to try to pass all of them, despite the chasm between House and Senate funding levels, remains to be seen. The White House, for its part, has threatened a veto for every House appropriations bill that has moved forward to date.
It appears almost inevitable that at least a short-term continuing resolution will be needed before October 1 to keep USDA and the rest of the government functioning. It also appears inevitable that at some point, likely as the potential debt ceiling debacle moves closer and closer after October 1, there may be one last chance for some type of overall budget deal to get made, even if its just another fairly short term, crisis-avoiding deal and not the long-term deal so badly needed to restore sanity to the legislative process. If that happens, it could be the vehicle on which the farm bill and the agriculture appropriations bill hitches a ride.