It’s looking more likely that Congress will be forced to pass a temporary extension of the existing Farm Bill as time runs out on reaching a compromise. The Senate returned from Thanksgiving break on Monday and plans to meet for the next two weeks, but House members are scheduled to end business for the year on Friday.
Saying that he is unwilling to keep representatives in Washington longer, House Speaker John Boehner said he’s not optimistic that Congress can approve a final bill this week. He suggested the Farm Bill be extended to January to allow more time, while Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., have said negotiators have made progress. (The House has agreed to base subsidies on historic acreage, according to Politico, while the Senate has compromised on greater cuts to food stamps.)
A short-term extension seems most likely, according to Roman Keeney, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. That would allow lawmakers to avoid making voters angry with a spike in milk prices, but wouldn’t help farmers plan for the coming growing season.
“Extensions of the 2008 farm bill ranging from one month to two years have been discussed,” Keeney said. “The shorter is far more likely as a stopgap to allow the farm bill conference committee to finalize its report and present it to the chambers to vote.”
Without some sort of legislation to replace the Farm Bill that expired on Sept. 30, federal policy would revert to 1949 law and require the government to support dairy in a way that would drive up retail milk prices to around $7 a gallon.
“With the start of fiscal year 2014 on Oct. 1, authorization for previous farm legislation written in 2008 has already lapsed, triggering a reversion to farm subsidy laws first enacted in the mid-20th century,” Keeney explained. That means milk prices could spike within a month.
Farmers also wouldn’t know how to plan for 2014.
“With the 2013 crop just harvested being the last that is subject to the 2008 law, farmers are left making plans for their 2014 crops with uncertainty about the rules and regulations that will govern the farm commodity system,” Keeney said.
“As we close out the year, it seems that the most farm and agribusiness decision-makers can hope for before the end of the year is continued signs of progress and a declared timeline for the conference committee to finish its work in early 2014,” he said. “Farmers already will be making their planting decisions for the 2014 crop with the uncertainty of markets and weather. The odds would seem to favor that those unknowns will be compounded by the uncertainty of the regulations and support mechanisms that govern the agricultural economy via the farm bill - just as they were for the 2013 crop year.”
There’s still a chance that the conference committee of House and Senate agriculture leaders can reach a compromise bill that would pass both bodies before the break.
“We’re making great progress, across the board we’re trying to bring it all together,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told reporters last week. “We are coming closer in every part of the bill.”
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., agreed. “We made great progress. We have more progress to make,” Lucas said. “Let us keep working.”