Congress Short of Time on Farm Law as Groups Urge Action

Congress Running Short of Time on Farm Law as Groups Seek Action
The U.S. Capitol building is seen from the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg

Congress is running out of time to pass a new agriculture law that covers food stamps and crop subsidies before the election, a Republican senator said, while groups rallied on Capitol Hill today demanding action.

The Senate, which passed a five-year law in June, is aiming to adjourn at the end of next week and return after the Nov. 6 election, deputy Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois said yesterday. In the House, Republican leaders are reluctant to vote on a five-year bill before the law expires Sept. 30. A one-year measure being considered by House Republicans is “unacceptable,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said yesterday.

“You have a much better chance of getting a bill in December,” after the election when disagreements on issues such as food-stamp spending may be easier to resolve, said Mary Kay Thatcher, top lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer group. The Bureau, along with the National Farmers Union and about 40 other organizations held a rally on Capitol Hill today to pressure lawmakers into passing a plan. About 500 people participated.

With an adjournment looming and Congress needing to pass a stop-gap measure to pay for government programs for the budget year that begins Oct. 1, action on long-term farm policy is in doubt, said Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican.

“I’d like to see a five-year farm bill,” Thune told reporters yesterday on Capitol Hill. “But in the number of legislative days that are left, it’s unlikely we’d probably get there.’

Food Stamps

The farm legislation funds federal nutrition programs including food stamps, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s biggest expense, as well as subsidies to farmers that lower raw-materials costs for companies including Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Bunge Ltd. In the next 10 years, measures approved by the House Agriculture Committee and passed by the Senate would cost about $1 trillion, with cuts in nutrition programs, including food stamps, and farm subsidies. Lower payments to farmers would be partially offset by adjustments in crop-insurance initiatives.

The Senate passed its five-year measure in June, and the House Agriculture Committee advanced a plan in July. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, said Sept. 10 that leadership still hopes to get a farm bill passed by the end of the month. GOP hesitancy to move forward a bill is frustrating members of its caucus from rural areas, who want to show constituents results before the November elections.

‘‘I am disappointed that they haven’t scheduled this for a vote,” said Representative Kristi Noem, a freshman Republican from South Dakota, in an interview at today’s rally. “Frankly, I take my direction from the people of South Dakota.”

Senate, House

Hurdles remain, especially between the House committee and Senate versions of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. The House version calls for a $16 billion cut over 10 years, about four times the Senate’s reduction.

Democrats including Stabenow have said the House cuts are too large, while Tea Party Republicans including Representative Tim Huelskamp of Kansas have said they’re not enough.

Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said Republican leadership doesn’t appear interested in passing a law. “They’ve apparently decided not to do it before the election,” he said of House leaders. “I can’t really do anything about it.”

Thune said a one-year extension may be the next-best option, considering the time constraints. Stabenow said such a move would cost the government more money and only create more uncertainty for farmers.

Kicking Can

“People who don’t want reform want to kick the can down the road,” Stabenow said on Bloomberg Television. The House only needs “a couple of days” to pass a measure, after which both chambers could hammer out a final agreement, she said.

A sense of urgency on farm policy may be damped by a lack of consequences when the existing law expires, Thatcher said. “Nothing terrible happens” on Sept. 30, she said.

1949 Provisions

Without legislation, USDA programs revert to original farm-program language approved in 1949 under a radically different approach to agriculture. Still, food stamps, crop insurance, and many conservation programs have their spending authorized separately from the farm bill, and those initiatives will continue, she said.

Most crop subsidies, meanwhile, aren’t paid until later in the growing season, giving lawmakers until early 2013 to avoid creating disruptions for farmers seeking to know the contours of farm programs before making planting decisions, she said. Dairy producers may see payments disrupted before then, yet they are a small constituency, she said.

That uncertainty still penalizes farmers, Stabenow said.

“It’s very clear that farm country is overwhelmingly saying, ‘‘get the job done.’’

More than half of all U.S. counties have been declared natural disaster areas by the Department of Agriculture this year, mainly because of extreme heat and dryness. Still, farmers may see record profits of $122.2 billion this year because higher prices and crop-insurance payments will outweigh losses from the drought, the USDA said last month.

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