WASHINGTON, July 27, 2012 – With hot, scorching conditions gripping much of the U.S., House GOP leaders are signaling that they are finally feeling the political “heat” and willing to act on legislation that could provide disaster aid for livestock producers and provide some measure of certainty for other farmers by extending the 2008 farm bill for one year. However, there are several different options under consideration for next week and the process is still in flux, according to congressional sources.
“There are three or four different things that could happen” when the House considers legislation which is expected to be scheduled for next Wednesday, explained Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., during an interview with Agri-Pulse last night. “Of course, all of this could change again between now and Monday.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said during a press conference Thursday morning that he believes the House “will address the livestock disaster program that, in the last farm bill, was unfortunately only authorized for four years.”
“We will continue to work with Rep. Lucas and members of the committee on an appropriate path forward,” Boehner added, without providing any specifics on what that path would look like.
Rep. Crawford said one option under consideration would extend the livestock and nursery disaster programs that expired last year in a retroactive fashion, essentially providing two years of coverage, as part of a one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. But pursuing that option would require finding over $300 million in offsets, which have not yet been identified.
There’s been some discussion about scaling back direct payments to fund the disaster provisions, but most of the sources we talked to said they wanted to avoid cutting direct payments in order to provide more certainty for farmers and lenders dealing with what could be extreme drought-related losses this year. Cuts to the food stamp program would also be off the table.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo, introduced a measure this week that would renew and expand the livestock assistance programs.
However, some members want to continue those programs along with the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program (SURE) to help farmers suffering from crop losses, too. That’s despite the fact that the majority of producers are already covered by crop insurance.
Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-IA, and the entire Iowa delegation, have signed on to support of H.R. 6167. By some estimates, an extension of SURE coupled with livestock disaster aid could cost $2.5 billion or more – depending on how the final language is written. Finding that level of offsets would be a much steeper climb.
“Farmers and ranchers throughout the country are suffering under this unrelenting drought and we cannot wait around any longer to see how politics will play out with a new farm bill,” explained Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa who co-signed the bill.
A similar measure has been introduced in the upper chamber, by Montana Democrats Sen. Max Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester, along with North Dakota Democrat Sen. Kent Conrad.
Rep. Crawford said another option under consideration would be for the House to approve a one-year extension as a means to negotiate with the Senate on H.R. 6083, the FARRM bill that passed out of the House Agriculture Committee. Then the Senate could substitute the bill it adopted in June and conference with the House.
There are several benefits of this approach, he noted, including giving producers some certainty over the next year and giving USDA more time to implement new provisions like the Stacked Income Protection Program (STAX) for cotton. The agency has already signaled that it won’t be ready to implement the program for 2013 and needs more time to prepare.
“That could be one of the ‘silver-linings’ of a one-year extension,” Crawford added, while noting that he would prefer to see the House pass H.R. 6083. However, GOP leaders have made it clear to Crawford and other freshman members that, with a group of fiscal conservatives opposing the measure, passage of the five-year package is unlikely.
If GOP leaders wanted to schedule a vote on H.R. 6083, “We would probably lose 40-50 GOP votes, but I think we could pick them up on the Democrat’s side,” he noted.
Thus far, that appears to be a political gamble that GOP leaders are unwilling to take. And it is unclear how many Democrats will be willing to support the measure.
But a one-year extension might not be a “slam dunk” either, especially if those GOP members, like Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who want to amend the House Ag Committee’s bill, view it as a way to avoid regular order and avoid full floor debate.
While voicing opposition to a straight one-year extension, the House Agriculture Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Collin Peterson, signaled that he’s open to an extension as long as it could be used as a vehicle to getting a new five-year bill done.
In an interview last week, Peterson observed that GOP leaders were underestimating the political mess they were getting themselves into by delaying action on disaster aid and the farm bill. (See: http://www.agri-pulse.com/Peterson-optimistic-about-farm-bill-passage-07202012.asp)
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, also indicated a willingness to accept a short-term extension, as part of a longer-term effort.
“If the House intends to send us a bill that will be used to negotiate the farm bill during August, I am open to that approach,” Stabenow said. “However, a short-term extension is bad for farmers and our agricultural economy. If Congress does what Congress always does and kicks the can down the road with a short-term extension, there will be no reform, direct payments will continue, we’ll lose the opportunity for major deficit reduction and we’ll deliver a real blow to our economic recovery.”
House members contacted by Agri-Pulse say they are waiting to hear more about the potential path forward and should know more by Monday or Tuesday.
“I’m very hopeful that we will be able to pass a new farm bill or an extension to bring some type of certainty to farmers, especially those livestock folks who have been so hard hit by this drought,” emphasized Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo.
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