US Lawmakers Race to Finalise Farm Bill Before August Recess

18 July 2013

Efforts to clinch a new US Farm Bill appear to be coming to a head, with key lawmakers pushing to achieve a compromise before the August congressional recess. The US House of Representatives passed its own version of the legislation less than a week ago, months after the Senate.

The version approved by the House last week included everything but nutrition, in a controversial move that effectively ended the long-standing tradition of only considering the two elements in tandem. A previous version that included both elements had been voted down in June, prompting the change. (See Bridges Weekly, 27 June 2013)

In discussions over the past two years, the nutrition component of the bill had comprised nearly 80 percent, or nearly US$800 billion, in spending. At question during the negotiations were the nature of the cuts, leading estimates to vary.

The exclusion of food stamps, or nutritional provisions, in the bill notwithstanding, analysts say that the House legislation is otherwise largely unchanged from that passed by the chamber's Agriculture Committee earlier this year. Minus the nutrition, the expected outlays in the final House bill are virtually  "identical" to those in the previous version, according to Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University.

The House's new bill would also do away with the need to negotiate new Farm Bills every five years. Some farm interests, from conservation to development, have derided the shift, on the grounds that the renewal process is useful for addressing changing agricultural needs.

Even conservative groups calling for a split bill and deep subsidy cuts, such as Heritage Action, have refused to support the legislation as passed. The organisation says that the House bill was to the "left of [US President Barack] Obama," especially when compared to what the President had proposed earlier this year.

Notably, trade-distorting subsidies could become permanent under the House Farm Bill, according to Jim French of Oxfam USA, a development group. Eliminating the five-year renewal cycle, he warned, could also leave Congress without an established mechanism for reforming US agricultural spending in the future.

Two years of negotiations

The Farm Bill has historically been the single most important piece of legislation covering US agricultural spending. The current version, set to expire on 30 September, is operating under a one-year extension after lawmakers failed to approve a new bill last autumn.

Over the past two years, discussions on what shape a new Farm Bill should take have been heated and inconclusive, with the Senate twice passing a bill to the House's one. The political wrangling that has ensued, observers say, has only served to highlight Congress' difficulty in passing important legislation.

"[It is] as easy to watch this from afar as it is to watch a three ring circus," said French.

While trade policymakers outside of Washington have been closely watching the process, given the US' status as a major agricultural exporter, analysts say that trade has been a minimal consideration during the months of Farm Bill debate.

"[This] highlights one of the problems with comprehensive bills, which is that important policy issues are frequently overlooked or ignored," Dan Holler, Communications Director of Heritage Action, said in emailed comments to Bridges.

Farm leaders from both chambers are now expected to rush what is currently on the table into conference, where the two separate bills will be reconciled into a final version, which will then require presidential approval.

Next steps

In a memo to the House Agriculture Committee, Chair Frank Lucas of Oklahoma told fellow Republicans that an informal series of compromises will probably be necessary between the Senate and the House before the formal conference process can start.

Lucas has recently indicated that the House will need to pass a bill on the nutrition title before conferencing can begin. The Chair ultimately left the bill on shaky ground, writing in his memo that the non-nutrition components of the bill do "not work for all commodities in all regions of the country."

He also warned that it leaves several producers "without a viable safety-net while locking in profits for others."

Like the rest of the Farm Bill process, the upcoming attempt to "conference" the two chambers' respective pieces of legislation is expected to be divisive. House Republicans have already indicated that they are not amenable to the Senate's food stamp provisions, while leaders of the Senate Agriculture committee are unlikely to pass a bill that only addresses agriculture, such as that passed by the House.

The two chambers are expected to push for some sort of agreement in the next two weeks, before lawmakers return to their districts for the August break.

However, long-time Farm Bill watchers such as Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition warn that the process could still fall apart, given the conflicting demands made on the bill. "Bottom line is that we're heading to another extension," he said.

ICTSD reporting; "Frank Lucas: Food stamps could make final farm bill," POLITICO, 16 JULY 2013; "Farm Bill; Ag Economy; Regulations; and, Immigration- Wednesday," FARMPOLICY.COM, 17 JULY 2013.

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