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What happens if Congress doesn't pass new Farm Bill?

Sept. 13, 2012 | 0 comments

If a rally to push Congress into getting a new Farm Bill passed (see related story) before the end of September isn't successful, what happens?

The current "Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008" will expire on Sept. 30 and farmers are wondering what rules they will fall under if the House can't be encouraged to act on a Farm Bill that was given bi-partisan approval in the House Agriculture Committee.

The Senate had already passed it's own version of the Farm Bill in June.

House leadership balked at the price tag on food stamp and nutrition programs that are included in the "Farm Bill."

If the full House does succeed in passing a farm and food measure, the differences between the House and Senate versions would need to be worked out in a conference committee.

Political observers this week warned that if Congress doesn't act, U.S. agriculture could revert to old policies passed in 1938 and 1949 that still form a fallback position to today's policies.

Over the years the threat of reverting to outdated policies has been enough to force Congress to act, although not always on time.

Lawmakers were past their deadline in passing the 1996 Farm Bill and when the 2007 policy expired, Congress didn't get a new bill done until 2008 - the current legislation.

This week U.S. Agriculture Secy. Tom Vilsack warned that a number of federal farm programs would expire at the end of the month if Congress does nothing.

Programs providing drought relief, the popular Conservation Reserve Program conservation program and dairy safety net programs, including the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) would end.

In light of the dwindling number of days when Congress could act and with the deadline of Sept. 30 looming, many beltway observers believe Congress will likely pass a one-year extension of the current measure.

The House only has eight working days this months and the Senate has 12 days. Earlier in the year there were plenty of nay-sayers who didn't believe a Farm Bill could be passed in an election year and it appears they may have been right.

If that happens it could be a repeat of 2008, when farm and food legislation was a year late - following a one-year extension.

But it will be even harder to pass legislation next year when the budget baselines will be even tighter than they are now. Farm Bill negotiations would have to begin anew in a new session of Congress.

For many years the "Farm Bill" has included food stamps and other nutrition programs in order to build a coalition of constituents and lawmakers who want to see it passed. This time, some analysts noted, that coalition stands in the way of urgent passage of the measure because some of those coalition members are probably in favor of just extending the current Farm Bill.

The food stamp program isn't set to expire at the end of this month and any new legislation would likely cut funding for that program. So those advocating for greater aid to the hungry and poor are unlikely to be interested in pushing hard for a new farm and food bill.

If Congress does nothing and allows programs to expire, programs will revert to old legislation that was passed with no expiration date.

Economists are warning that reverting to the old pre-World War II policies would be devastating to the agricultural economy - with the old farm policies providing neither a floor or a ceiling for commodity prices.

Eric Schuck, an economics professor at Linfield College in McMinnville, OR, published an online essay over the weekend stating that if that old system were used in today's economy the current support price for a bushel of wheat would be $18.

A similar warning for a per-bushel price of $18 for corn was voiced by Agriculture Secy. Vilsack this week.

The old farm policy doesn't include food stamp programs or the soil conservation programs that have allowed the United States to avoid another Dust Bowl during this year's drought, Schuck added.

The economist believes that the best solution would be for the House to vote on the bill that was approved by its Agriculture Committee, but said that House Speaker John Boehner is concerned about "a Tea Party revolt on his right over the Farm Bill's cost and Democratic opposition to nutrition assistance cuts."

The Speaker, he said, tried to "patch the problem with an inadequate drought-relief bill" that didn't solve the problem.

If getting that bill passed is not possible, a solution would be to extend the 2008 measure for a year.

"An extension maintains coverage for current food assistance and conservation programs, avoids the costs of 1949 price supports and gives producers the stability needed to plan for the 2013 crop year," he wrote.

"If that doesn't happen, we need to set our watches back to 1949," he added.

To read Schuck's entire analysis, go to http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2012/09/congress_needs_to_pass_a_farm.htm.

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