Farm Bill – To Conference or Not to Conference?

Posted on Saturday, July 20th, 2013 by Renata Brillinger

Reposted from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)

With the House having passed a partial farm bill last week, the issue of the moment is whether or not this action signals the start of a conference committee between the House and Senate to craft a final bill. Toward that end, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) today called for that formal conference to begin immediately, noting that only 20-odd legislative days remaining before the farm bill expires on September 30. NSAC is in strong agreement with that approach.

Stabenow also indicated that the House has yet to send their bill to the Senate, a step that happens immediately but which House Republican leadership did not take last week. Until the bill is sent to the Senate, no action can take place to establish a formal conference committee.It is unclear if the action was merely delayed for a few days, or if there is an intention to hold up the bill indefinitely. NSAC has called on House leadership to take all necessary steps to begin the conference committee process this week.

Stabenow and other Senators made clear that any final farm bill would have to be a comprehensive one that included a nutrition title. The House left the nutrition title out of the bill last week, and the bill’s managers alternately suggested they would go to conference with just the farm-only bill and that they would produce a second nutrition-only bill and then wrap them together. The latter option would effectively be the kiss of death for the farm bill. The only hope for getting a new five-year, comprehensive bill with all of its titles is to move into conference right now.

Stabenow also noted there is deep opposition within the farm and conservation communities to the House measure that would repeal the farm bill provision that forces a reversion to the commodity programs of the 1938 and 1949 farm bills if a new farm bill and new commodity title is not agreed to or the most current farm bill is not extended. The House bill would replace that long-standing but archaic provision with a new measure making the 2013 commodity title permanent law.

Giving permanent law status to the new commodity title would not only cement subsidies in place without further reform, but would also remove much of the incentive to ever pass a new farm bill in the future, leaving farm conservation, agricultural research, rural development, and other programs that sunset with each farm bill cycle vulnerable to extinction. NSAC believes farm programs of all types and stripes should be subject to the same rules with respect to sunsets.

Some inside-the-Beltway groups have suggested the best way to proceed now is for quiet, behind closed doors negotiations on a new farm bill, without having a formal and open conference committee process. NSAC disagrees with that suggestion, and believes an open and transparent process is important both substantively and to retain the necessary momentum to get a bill across the finish line.

Some observers believe that the uncertainty still swirling around House majority leadership’s ultimate objectives likely translates into another extension of the 2008 Farm Bill later this year. Importantly, Stabenow indicated today that she would not agree to a farm bill extension that did not include subsidy reform or that left out funding for programs stranded by the current farm bill extension.

On that point, too, NSAC is in strong agreement with the Chairwoman. We want a new multi-year bill, but if another extension becomes necessary, it cannot be another version of the awful farm bill extension we are operating under in 2013, one that leaves the most innovative and job-creating programs unfunded but continues wasteful direct production subsidies.

That whole extension discussion can and should be avoided, however, by moving to an open conference process between the House and Senate by the end of this week. That leaves just enough days left before the farm bill extension expires to conference the bills and create a comprehensive and bipartisan result that can be signed into law. The process of creating a final bill that includes food assistance, maximizes subsidy reform, and invests in the future of food and farming should start now, without further delay.

Stay Connected
Get newsletter and blog updates and action alerts from CalCAN