by Kate Fitzgerald
“House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders developed a bipartisan, bicameral proposal for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that would save $23 billion. However, the Joint Select Committee’s failure to reach a deal on an overall deficit reduction package effectively ends this effort. We are pleased we were able to work in a bipartisan way with committee members and agriculture stakeholders to generate sound ideas to cut spending by tens of billions while maintaining key priorities to grow the country’s agriculture economy. We will continue the process of reauthorizing the farm bill in the coming months, and will do so with the same bipartisan spirit that has historically defined the work of our committees.”
With this statement Congressional Agriculture Committee Chairs Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) signaled the failure of the Super Committee and the end of their attempt to roll Farm Bill provisions into a potential deficit reduction bill. This means that farm and food policy will stay front and center for at least the next seven months and maybe well into 2013.
The current Farm Bill expires on September 30, 2012 and with it authorization for almost all of the programs the United States Department of Agriculture runs. If a new bill (or an extension of the current one) is not passed by then the Department would automatically revert to the provisions of original legislation from 1949 –which is obviously not a real option.
There are several scenarios that could play out over the next year. Senator Stabenow and Representative Lucas could try to have their compromise bill (the language of which has not been seen by the membership of the full Agriculture Committees) attached to another “must pass” bill before the end of the year.
The House and Senate Agriculture Committees could return to a regular order process in January and begin drafting a new Farm Bill, probably using the Stabenow-Lucas compromise language as a starting point for discussions. The time will be short to get something done. Since 2012 is an election year, members of Congress up for re-election prefer to spend as much time as possible in their districts and work slows to a crawl after Memorial Day.
Another option would be to pass a one-year extension of the current 2008 Farm Bill and leave the tricky work of rewriting programs to the 113th Congress.
The final possibility is that there could be a successful bipartisan deficit-cutting package passed in 2012 and that farm legislation could be attached to it. There are several possible versions circulating on Capital Hill based on the work of two commissions and the “Gang of Six” senators.
In the background of all these possibilities is the shadow of automatic budget cuts beginning in January 2013, a process known as “sequestration.” It is probable that only two Farm Bill programs would be excluded from these cuts, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that pays farmers to take fragile land out of production. The heaviest cuts would be borne by crop insurance programs, currently among the most popular and expensive federal farm programs.
A number of programs that support the development of local and regional food systems and that are popular with family farm, organic and health organizations have no funding beyond September 2012. Many would probably be lost under sequestration or without a concerted effort to fund them through the appropriations process should there be a temporary, one-year extension of the current legislation.
No matter what path Congressional agriculture leaders take, farm and food policy will continue to be priorities in the near term. Advocates for healthy food policy must stay engaged to ensure that important gains made in 2008 are not lost and that the movement toward better American food policy stays on course.