Will There Be a 2013 Farm Bill?

So, whatever happened to the 2013 Farm Bill, you ask? (Indulge me.) Answer: the legislation is still stalled in Congress. You’ll recall that after the 2008 Farm Bill expired on October 1, 2012, a last-minute year-end extension was passed to support programs through October 1, 2013 ; right now, we’re speeding towards a January 1 expiration date on that current extension. (And arriving at the so-called “dairy cliff” we narrowly averted last year.) We’d tumble over that if Congress doesn’t pass an extension, because on January 1, 2014, so-called “permanent law” kicks in, triggering price spikes on milk and other commodities – which is how you’d end up seeing $7 per gallon prices for the jugs on your dairy aisle.

Prior to Thanksgiving, talks between Democrats and Republicans broke down (we know, shocking) over the proposals of direct cash payments to farmers being replaced by subsidies. The Senate’s plan would bolster revenues but be tied to a “rolling average” of market prices. Without the current system of direct cash payments, the Senate’s plan would rely more closely on the actual acreages planted by farmers to determine eligibility and amount of benefits. (In our current system, cash payments are based on the previous production history of a farm, not necessarily what’s in the ground as we speak.) Meanwhile, the House proposal would reimburse farmers for their production costs if prices for their commodities fall below a certain point. The latest signals coming out of closed-door negotiations suggest that the commodities proposal is being worked out, even as commodities’ groups gin up opposition.

I bet you’re wondering how commodities became the story for the delay, since for more than a year, SNAP (the food stamp program) and the nutrition title has played Farm Bill spoiler. The bad news is that rather bitter political arguments over proposed cuts to SNAP continue, already prompting the White House to threaten a veto if the deepest (or even the more modest $10 billion alternative) cuts are included in any proposed legislation. Just before Thanksgiving, the White House released a report about the social benefits of food stamps, discussing how many children, elderly and disabled receive the benefits in each state and reiterating the Obama Administration’s support for the program to be included in any final bill.

Since the Farm Bill is being negotiated under another major looming deadline – Congress must enact a new budget agreement by January 15 to avoid another government shutdown – it is possible that a full bill could be passed while arriving at that larger budgetary agreement. (At least some Ag Committee aides seem to think so.) That being said, House Speaker John Boehner suggested that an extension would be wise, thus sidestepping the New Year’s deadline to maintain dairy subsidies and allowing negotiations to continue into 2014.

Bipartisan Congressional leaders are at work on a compromise budget bill to avert the January 15 shutdown; both houses want to end their 2013 business by this Friday and head home for the holidays. For now, all we can ask is "Will they or won't they?"

And for the second year in a row, we'll keep you posted.