News Column

Heartland of the Matter: A New Farm Bill?

Dec. 26, 2012

Jerry Hagstrom

Farm

The probability that Congress and President Barack Obama will conclude a "fiscal cliff" bill to deal with the nation's deficit, much less include a new farm bill in it, is low, but House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he is not worried about whether a bill is passed before next year.

On Dec. 20, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, failed to convince House Republicans to support his bill to extend tax rates for all but people with incomes of more than $1 million. The next day, he sent House members home with no clear plan to return, and announced that the next steps are up to the Senate and Obama.

Boehner told reporters he would continue to work with the Senate and the president, but he added "How we get there, God only knows."

The shift of leadership to the Democratic-led Senate and the president raises the possibility of a year-end deal that could pass the House only with the support of House Democrats, but such a bill would make conservative House Republicans furious.

Boehner's statement that he had to turn over leadership on the "fiscal cliff" issue to the Senate and Obama was a clear failure on his part, but he insisted Dec. 21 that his speakership is not in jeopardy.

While the House has gone home, many members of the Senate are planning to travel to Hawaii for the funeral of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. Senators are not expected back in Washington until Dec. 27, which still gives legislators four days to work on legislation before the end of the year, when the 112th Congress will go out of existence.

Obama is also scheduled to go to Hawaii for Christmas, and White House officials have said they are not sure what the next move would be on "fiscal cliff" negotiations.

Boehner said he will call the House back if they are needed. Both the House and the Senate will swear in new members and start the business of a new Congress on Jan. 3., but the farm bills that have passed the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee will die on Dec. 31 if they are not acted on.

Milk in the news

Meanwhile, the prospect of rising milk prices got renewed media attention on Dec. 21 in a story in The New York Times.

Milk prices may rise if a new farm bill or the dairy programs in the 2008 bill are not revived before Jan. 1, when the Agriculture Department would be required to enforce a 1949 dairy law.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the prospect of higher dairy prices showed why Congress needs to pass a "fiscal cliff" bill that includes a farm bill.

"Fiscal cliff tax increases would hit middle class families' pocketbooks, but so would paying $6 or $7 for a gallon of milk," Stabenow said in a statement.

"It is absolutely critical that Congress pass a new five-year farm bill to keep food prices stable and protect America's 16 million agriculture jobs." she said. "The farm bill reforms programs and cuts spending by $23 billion, so including it in a final deficit reduction deal will help the country avoid the fiscal cliff."

But Peterson told the radio program AgriTalk on Dec. 20, "I object to this terminology of 'going over the cliff,' This is not a cliff because if everything expires, nothing dramatic happens."

Taxpayers' withholding "will go up a bit" he explained, but the sequestration cuts don't go into effect immediately. He also noted that when Congress has not met its deadlines, the problems have been fixed retroactively.

On the farm bill, which expired Sept. 30, Peterson noted that programs affecting crops would not be affected immediately because those programs are based on crop year, not the expiration date of the bill.

Although the Agriculture Department is required to begin implementing a 1949 dairy program on Jan. 1, Peterson noted that some economists have said it should not affect dairy prices until May or June.

Peterson has opposed a farm bill extension unless it includes the dairy stabilization program that is in both the Senate-passed and House Agriculture Committee-passed farm bills.

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Source: (c) 2012 Agweek Magazine (Grand Forks, N.D.)