Farm Bill faces dubious future this year

If Congress fails to reach agreement on a comprehensive Farm Bill, it will put National Drought Policy Action Plan on hold and could nearly double the price of milk

Chances of passing the Farm Bill (HR 2642) this year have dropped dramatically since negotiations have been on hold until after the Thanksgiving recess.  According to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), to get a bill enacted by the end of the year, negotiators would have had to reach agreement on the framework of a conference report during the week of November 22nd, before either chamber adjourned for the Thanksgiving recess.  Such wide a berth of time is needed because once they agree on a framework, the conference report needs to be drafted and reviewed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) and Congressional Budget Office before it can be submitted to the House and Senate for floor votes.

While the deadline was missed, many legislators remain optimistic that they will reach an agreement and pass a Farm Bill this year. Lucas says, “Anything is possible,” and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) added that staff discussions continued even after the legislators adjourned their last negotiation session.

The bill is being held up by disagreement over provisions in the commodity title and cuts to the food stamps program.

Why the push to get the bill passed before year-end?  According to a recent Whitehouse report, “Failure to pass a new Farm Bill before January 1, 2014 raises concerns that provisions of so-called ‘permanent law’ [provisions from the Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1938 and the Agricultural Act of 1949] would resume.”  These provisions would require USDA to support dairy prices at “parity level,’ which is nearly twice the current price and would lead to a near doubling of the consumer price of milk.

While not part of the web of contention or draconian consequences, major water issues are part of the Farm Bill.  Both the House and Senate version include a provision that would establish a National Drought Council to develop a National Drought Policy Action Plan.  Among the Council’s responsibilities would be delineating and integrating federal agency responsibilities for “drought preparedness, mitigation, research, risk management, training and emergency relief.” The council would be directed to integrate its work with state, regional, local, tribal and private groups and would be charged with evaluating existing federal drought program.  A report would due to Congress on an annual basis with a final report due seven years from the date the bill is enacted.

Water is also heavily addressed in the Conservation and Rural Development titles, which include the establishment or extension and authorization of programs that provide financial offsets for water conservation for water protections, watershed rehabilitation and wetlands, as well as authorization for grants for rural water development and maintenance of water wells for low and moderate income families in rural communities.

Written by Marta Weismann