WASHINGTON – Time is growing short for negotiators trying to piece together a farm bill by the end of the year, leading to speculation that the House and Senate may choose to adopt a temporary measure until the details can be worked out.
The House is slated to adjourn on Dec. 13, leaving only a handful of legislative days to work around issues like funding for the food stamp program. While the key participants — Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) — appear optimistic about reaching an agreement, a vote might have to wait until sometime in January.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the lower chamber may vote on a one-month extension as early as Wednesday. Leadership notes that subsidy programs within the 2008 farm bill are slated to expire by the end of the year, meaning farmers may go without their checks if Congress fails to provide some extra time.
An extension is particularly crucial to the dairy industry. If lawmakers fail to pass a new bill or extend the old one by Jan. 1, dairy support programs will revert to a 1949 law that is expected to double wholesale milk prices to $7 or $8 a gallon.
But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, who plans to keep the upper chamber in town until Dec. 20, splashed cold water on the extension plan Tuesday, asserting the proposal will not come up for a vote.
“Let them (the House) vote on it,” Reid said. “We’re not going to do it.”
Negotiators have been working on a plan since October. As expected, food stamp funding has proved to be the major hang-up. Last June, the House, mostly along party lines, rejected a proposed farm bill 234-195, with Republican critics maintaining cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program weren’t sufficient. Leadership responded by passing, and sending to the Senate, a new five-year farm bill without any food stamp provisions whatsoever, setting the stage for the conference committee.
The Senate bill proposed cutting the food stamp program by about $4 billion. The House originally sought a $20 billion reduction before the removal of the provision. It now appears the sum will come closer to the Senate package than the concept put forth by the House.
Peterson, the former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and now the ranking member, told InForum, a North Dakota news website, that negotiators have reached an agreement on food stamp cuts but demurred on providing a figure, saying only that the deal hews “substantially closer to the Senate’s” targeted cuts.
But Peterson further acknowledged that a conference committee resolution doesn’t guarantee success and the future remains murky.
“I think it will pass the Senate, but I cannot guarantee you it will pass the House,” Peterson told the InForum editorial board. “They are not going to be happy with the food stamp cuts.”
Peterson expressed confidence that at least half of the House Democratic caucus will go along with the compromise. Some party members are likely to oppose the measure because they consider the food stamp cuts to be too drastic.
About 80 percent of the farm bill deals with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. As of 2013, more than 15 percent of the nation’s population received food assistance. Six states – Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oregon and Tennessee – plus the District of Columbia reported that more than 20 percent of their residents were on food stamps.
Critics, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, complain that the farm bill has been transformed into little more than food stamp legislation that is far too generous, completely overshadowing agriculture policy.
“In the Senate bill, it just largely became a food stamp bill with production agriculture kind of stuck on as an afterthought,” McConnell told reporters after an appearance before the Kentucky Farm Bureau on Saturday.
“We’ve had a massive, massive increase in food stamps during this administration,” McConnell said. “I mean massive. It really is outrageous. The administration, itself, has conceded it privately. And that has made it very challenging to try to figure out how to piece this together.”
McConnell, who voted against the Senate measure and has received criticism from local agriculture interests because of it, expressed support for requiring food stamp recipients to work, maintaining it could spur the nation’s economy.
“We need to move in the direction of having a vibrant, productive, expanding economy,” McConnell said. “And you don’t do that by making it excessively easy to be non-productive.”