No easy path ahead for farm bill, Farm Bureau says

2012-11-13T19:21:00Z 2012-11-14T05:07:05Z No easy path ahead for farm bill, Farm Bureau saysBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Chances are slim that a farm bill will get passed by year’s end, but waiting until 2013 could be a disaster for America’s agriculture economy, a key Farm Bureau lobbyist said Tuesday.

Dale Moore, deputy executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, gives Congress a 15 percent chance of passing a farm bill during its lame-duck session, which began Tuesday. The bill, which impacts everything from food stamps to wildlife conservation and crop insurance, has yet to reach the House floor. Moore expects a farm bill floor debate to be more than the lame-duck session can handle.

“It’s going to be tough to get a five-year farm bill through the House. Before the Senate passed its farm bill, there were 300 amendments on the floor,” Moore told Montana Farm Bureau Federation members gathered in Billings. “If a hundred guys and gals can come up with 300 amendments, how many do you think 435 can come up with?”

More likely, a three-month or one-year farm bill will be offered to address needs like farm planning and to enable farmers to secure operating loans on favorable terms. A short-term solution would allow lawmakers more time to craft a long-term, five-year bill expected to cost roughly $500 billion.

But farmers might be worse off for waiting, Moore said. Baseline spending levels will be reset in mid-March. If a farm bill hasn’t passed by March, existing versions are likely to be recast under much leaner terms. And the odds aren’t good for Congress taking up the farm bill in the first three months of the year.

Congress will spend its working hours in January prepping new members and making committee and chair assignments. President Barack Obama will be inaugurated again. Those two things will consume the first month of the year, Moore said.

In February, Obama will roll out his new budget proposal, which House Republicans will surely reject and then counter with their own proposal, a debate that will spill into March, Moore said.

There are lawmakers pushing for the passage of a full, five-year farm bill before the end of 2012. Several rural-state lawmakers, scolded by constituents for not passing a farm bill in September before going home to campaign, made campaign promises about passing a farm bill in the lame-duck session.

Some are promoting passage of the farm bill this year as a budget-cutting step. The federal government is facing massive across-the-board spending cuts slated to begin at the beginning of next year. The farm bill version passed by the Senate cuts $23 billion from current farm bill spending. The House version, blocked by Republican leaders from a floor debate, would cut $35 billion. In both bills, the savings comes from farm subsidy cuts and restrictions on who qualifies for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Michigan Democrat Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Agriculture Committee chairwoman, earlier this month called passing a farm bill a significant first step in deficit reduction.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., a Senate Agriculture Committee member, indicated before the election that he will also push for farm bill passage this year.

Food stamp cuts are the biggest difference between the Senate-passed farm bill and the stalled House version. The Senate cuts $4 billion from a food stamps program costing $80 billion a year. The House version cuts $16 billion from food stamps. Roughly 80 percent of farm bill spending goes to food programs.

If the House and Senate can resolve their food stamp differences in conference committee, a farm bill this year could be possible, Moore said.

“We see Congress fight and fight and fight. And then, for whatever reason, they get the will to do it and they can move at lighting speed,” Moore said.

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