Lawmakers are about to break for their August recess with just two months to go before some programs in the 2018 farm bill expire, and not even a draft of the new legislation is in sight. But the stakes for not passing a fresh farm bill on time may be lower this year than in the past. 

Major farm bill programs won't be affected at first, but the impacts of delaying a new bill could start to mount heading into 2024, according to experts and congressional staff.

Crop insurance is permanently authorized; it’s unaffected regardless of whether Congress passes a new farm bill. Commodity program support is based on the crop year, not the fiscal year, so farmers will still get payments based on 2023 market prices regardless of when a new farm bill gets enacted. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which accounts for more than 80% of farm bill spending, is reauthorized each year through the appropriations process.

Stabenow-GT-NAFB-WW-23.jpgSenate Ag Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., (left) and House Ag Chair Glenn 'GT' Thompson, R-Pa., pose for reporters earlier this year on Capitol Hill. Four major conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Reserve Program, are authorized through 2031 because of a change made by the Inflation Reduction Act, the 2021 law that provided $18 billion in new spending for those programs to address climate change.

There’s also no immediate impact on payments to landowners under the Conservation Reserve Program. While CRP wasn’t reauthorized by the IRA, USDA can continue making payments under existing contracts after Sept. 30. The same is true for the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development program, which assist commodity groups in promoting export sales — USDA can continue dispensing funds under existing contracts.

Sept. 30 is a notable date for 19 relatively small programs, which unlike most other farm bill programs, have no funding baseline beyond Sept. 30. That means those programs wouldn’t have money to operate even if Congress were to pass an extension of the 2018 farm bill, unless the extension also included new money for those programs.

Together, those 19 programs had $876 million of mandatory spending authority under the 2018 farm bill, according to the Congressional Research Service. By comparison, when the 2014 farm bill expired in 2018, 39 programs that had received $2.8 billion in total funding were left without future baselines.

The 19 programs include a pilot feral swine eradication program, emergency citrus disease research and organic certification cost-share assistance, according to CRS. 

For lawmakers, the real urgency to do something would come early in 2024. That’s when commodity programs would revert to requirements of a 1949 commodity support law, starting with dairy. USDA would be required to start buying up dairy products to push farmgate prices for milk to levels far in excess of market prices. 

But USDA wouldn't necessarily have to act immediately to raise milk prices. President Barack Obama didn’t sign the 2014 farm bill until February of that year, even though the 2008 bill had lapsed and permanent law had been triggered on Jan. 1.

Even so, the threat of that “dairy cliff” served as an incentive for negotiators to work out an agreement. 

“It was a little nerve-wracking at the time,” said Texas A&M University economist Bart Fischer, who was a top aide to the House Agriculture Committee when the 2014 and 2018 farm bills were enacted. But there was a consensus that negotiators were “clearly on a glide path” to finish the new bill, he said.

In 2024, if a new farm bill isn’t going to pass “pretty quickly after the beginning of the year, you can move to shorter term extensions, if that's what the members of the leadership choose to do,” Fischer said. 

That’s what happened in 2008, when Congress passed several short-term extensions before finally getting the farm bill enacted in June of that year after overcoming a series of presidential vetoes and a filing error in the legislation that further delayed the process. 

In fact, passing new law by early 2024 would be a rare legislative feat by ag committee leaders. According to an Agri-Pulse analysis of the last four farm bills, the average farm bill process took a little more than 18 months. Even if Congress were to match the shortest timeline of the last four farm bills — the 252-day process of the 2018 reauthorization — that would push President Joe Biden's signature into early April. 

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Some congressional aides are eyeing March 15 as a key deadline. That’s when farmers are supposed to decide between the two main commodity programs, Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage, for their 2024 crops.

In any case, Congress has another, unique reason not to go too deep into 2024 without passing a new farm bill — the IRA conservation funding. 

Leaders of the Ag committees would like to bring the IRA money into the next farm bill so it can be used to increase the future baseline for those programs

But Fischer said the amount of money that can be transferred to the farm bill could decline as USDA starts committing IRA funding to farmers in fiscal 2024. The more time passes, “less and less” of the IRA funding will be available for the committees to use, he said. 

bart_fischer_300.jpgBart Fischer, Texas A&M As it is, lawmakers have a dwindling number of days this year to pass a new farm bill. The House is scheduled to be in session for only 10 weeks after the upcoming recess. The Senate is scheduled to be in for 13 more weeks.

Leaders of the Ag committees acknowledge that the challenges of passing the fiscal 2024 appropriations bills could slow the process. Moreover, the committees were unable to convince the CBO to add staff to speed the delivery of cost estimates for possible modifications for farm bill programs

But House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., said he still hopes to bring up a new farm bill in September, while acknowledging there is a “lot of competition” for floor time. 

Senate Ag Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said she still is working to get a new bill enacted before 2024. “We’ll report it out (and) take it up sometime this fall in the Senate,” she said. “We really need to get it done by the end of the year.”

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