The 2012 Farm Bill Goes on Summer Vacation

Last Thursday, July 26, with farmers around the country reeling from drought, the House of Representatives voted to pass a so-called “third option” standalone $383 million disaster aid bill. The bill will only apply in 2012 and does not extend the 2008 Farm Bill. It’s also unlikely to pass in the Senate, so in a sense, this bill is a placeholder until September. The bill provides livestock disaster relief as well as aid to farmers of certain specialty crops (such as tree nurseries).

This morning before the official floor debate began, Rep. Jarid Polis (D-CO) kept referring to the bill as a “cow bailout” and wondered what other industries challenged by outside forces like rain or bad weather would need help next. On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) implored her colleagues to “respond to fellow human beings, whose need is exacerbated by the job climate in this country.”

What happens next for the farm bill is anyone’s guess, but here’s mine. During the August recess, it is likely that negotiations will continue behind-the-scenes, and some kind of last-ditch extension will come to be just before the September 30 deadline. Either way, fasten your seatbelts.

Here’s the Congressional menu of options for September:

    Option one: pass new Farm Bill.

    Option two: extend existing 2008 Farm Bill which includes disaster relief provisions and extends food stamps at 2008 levels.

    Option three: everything expires and we revert to 1949 agricultural law. (While this one’s a tad alarmist for me, this Congress continues to prove anything is possible.)

Leading up to today’s vote, it’s been a busy week or so in farm bill politics, with pressure mounting on Congress to pass legislation to “provide relief to cattle, pork and poultry farmers, who have been especially hard hit by the drought.” Last Friday (July 27), the House Rules Committee posted the text of a proposed one-year Farm Bill extension(PDF), which would be offered on a closed-rule basis—in other words, no amendments allowed from members. The proposed extension was withdrawn late on Tuesday, and the disaster relief standalone bill was born. In order to pay for disaster relief, conservation programs will be eliminated.

Worth noting: the Republican leadership had not scheduled a vote on the 2012 Farm Bill partly owing to fears of an intraparty fight. It is believed that the far-right wing of the Republican caucus would push for further food stamp cuts (beyond those already proposed). Combining that with Democratic opposition spells trouble for actually passing a bill.

A one-year farm bill extension would have sidestepped the matter of passing a shiny new five-year bill while providing livestock disaster relief and continuing to fund SNAP at 2008 levels. The extension also could have bought time for the parties to conference and resolve their political differences, a process which Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), co-chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has endorsed.

Opposition to the extension came from all sides.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition covered the extension thoroughly, offering a nifty guide to see which programs would be funded and which would “go dark” in 2013. And this will come in handy should Congress still vote on an extension come September, which is when you'll likely hear from us next on this subject.

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