Farm-state lawmakers in the House have conceded they probably won’t be able to attach a long-term extension of U.S. farm policy to any deal to avert tax increases and budget cuts set to take effect in the new year, and will now go back to the drawing board.
Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the Agriculture Committee’s top Democrat, said the panel probably will begin consideration of a new bill, designed to set farm policy for five years, on Feb. 27. The old law expired Sept. 30. “What else are we going to do? We have no other choice,” Peterson said yesterday.
Late February is the earliest such action could happen and “I see no reason to delay,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, told reporters.
Some farm-state lawmakers had been talking about trying to get the agriculture bill included in a larger deal to prevent more than $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect Jan. 1, in what is called the fiscal cliff. With time running out, and with House Speaker John Boehner opposed to mixing the farm bill in the budget talks, the conversation has changed.
Instead, inaction on a full five-year agriculture bill has prompted farm-state lawmakers who’d earlier resisted splitting the measure to try and attach parts of it to other legislation in hopes of getting something passed by year’s end.
Lucas said he ordered committee staff months ago to draft a “buffet of legislation” of short-term extensions as a contingency for just such a scenario.
The House Agriculture Committee approved a farm bill in July, a month after the Senate passed its version. Both bills would cost about $1 trillion if scored over a 10-year period.
Peterson had opposed piecemeal extensions of the farm bill, which sets spending levels for crop subsidies and nutrition programs, including food stamps. Now he says he would consider backing a short-term measure to revive expired conservation programs and to prevent farm policy from reverting back to legislation passed in 1949, which could result in a doubling of wholesale dairy prices on Jan. 1.
Peterson said any price increase may take months to fully materialize at the retail level, though “how soon it goes up, nobody knows.”
And any increase in the price of a gallon of milk could prod action from lawmakers in 2013, he said. “Maybe the milk price will wake them up.”
In the Senate, lawmakers are considering adding funds for livestock ranchers reeling from drought to a $60.4 billion disaster relief bill for superstorm Sandy. The chamber intends to complete work on that legislation this week.
Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley has filed an amendment to the bill that would provide livestock disaster assistance as well as aid for tree and fruit growers. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan is a co-sponsor, along with three other Democrats.
Stabenow’s endorsement may boost the amendment’s chances, as she and other farm-state lawmakers have opposed previous efforts to separate drought relief from the farm bill.
“We are still working very hard to complete a farm bill, to have the House take action, but in the meantime we have disasters that have occurred,” Stabenow said Dec. 17 on the Senate floor.