Wednesday, December 4, 2013

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Congress faces tight timeline on farm bill, budget

Washington—With the clock quickly winding down on 2013, congressional lawmakers are scrambling to wrap up work on key issues, including the farm bill and the budget.

Top farm lawmakers have been conferencing on the farm bill since early November.  Initially aiming for a deal by Thanksgiving, they remain optimistic they’ll get a new farm bill through before the new year.

 “I believe this can be done by the end of this year if there’s the political will to do it,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).

If a new farm bill is a no-go, “breakfast in the United States is going to be significantly more expensive,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has warned.   USDA is getting ready to make a number of changes that would affect several commodities, as well as the prices consumers pay.  Beginning soon after Jan. 1, retail milk prices could shoot up by $3 per gallon as federal dairy policy reverts to a 1949 law. 

Farm Bureau’s two overarching goals with the Senate-House conference are ensuring that permanent law is not repealed and a complete, unified farm bill continues, American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman told farm bill negotiators as they began their work last month.

“With this foundation, we also will be hard at work to make sure the efforts by both committees to provide safety net and risk management options that work for farmers in all regions, including those provisions across the many titles that would help livestock and specialty crop producers, are maintained,” he said.

Another critical deadline for Congress and farmers alike is Jan. 15, when the current budget deal expires.  Unless lawmakers put a budget in place beyond the middle of the January, funding dries up for most government programs, including those run by USDA. 
“That’s going to have a direct impact on farmers and ranchers, whether it has to do with payments or program availability,” explained Dale Moore, AFBF executive director of public policy.  “As the sequestration kicks in, it’s affecting a number of different budgets for agencies that we traditionally don’t think of as directly impacting agriculture, but it could be as simple as needing to get a permit done through EPA and how that may slow that process up.”

Without top-line budget numbers, appropriators can’t move the individual spending bills that keep the government up and running.  What they could do is pass legislation at last year’s funding level, then put additional money in once the overall budget is finalized. 
Another option is passage of a short-term budget bill, much like the one passed in October to put the government back in business after a 16-day shutdown.  

While finalizing a new farm bill and keeping the government open in the new year are the most pressing of Congress’ problems, getting a WRDA bill on the president’s desk is important to agriculture, too. 

WRDA conferees began meeting on Nov. 20, and while there are some big differences between the House’s and Senate’s versions of the legislation, each chamber passed its bills with strong bipartisan support, which could make all the difference in getting a bill through before the end of the year.   

One thing not on lawmakers’ side, whether they’re dealing with WRDA or any other issue, is time.The House reconvened this week and plans to adjourn for the year on Dec. 13. However, the Senate won’t meet again until Dec. 9, so the two chambers will overlap in session for only five days.

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