The expiration of the federal farm bill will be unpredictable for Iowa farmers. It will also be a hardship and an unnecessary burden.
But it won’t be new.
Twice before in recent history, in 1996 and 2007, Congress has failed to renew the bill, which expires every five years. The current bill expired on Sunday.
Congress adjourned Sept. 19 without renewing the bill, and won’t return to work until after the Nov. 6 election for a lame-duck session.
Congress had considered a short-term extension of the bill, between three months and a year, but the Republican-controlled House couldn’t even agree on that.
Albeit with different politics, the same overall result happened in 1996 and 2007 — the bill simply expired, with no extensions, and there was a gap in several programs that farmers were dependent upon.
The good news, according to experts in Congress and the U.S. agriculture industry, is that based on what happened before, Iowa farmers should be OK. But that also depends on history repeating itself — in both past cases, the bills were successfully renewed before programs finally expired during the following crop year.
Congress has been passing agriculture legislation since 1916, and through a quirk in the law, the expiration of the current bill technically reverts the country to the 1949 farm bill. That version is obviously arcane, and will mandate the expiration of programs that have been developed in the 63 years since then.
However, modern-era farm bills were written to apply to crop years, not calendar years, so many programs won’t expire until harvesting time in spring 2013, giving Congress roughly six more months to finish a bill. Dairy programs are an exception; they will expire on Dec. 31 of this year without congressional action.
But can a bill be passed, even after the election? Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who led an unsuccessful petition drive to force a final House vote on renewing the current bill, is pessimistic.
“Given the opposition to getting the bill passed before Sept. 30, there is no guarantee there will be the votes to pass a bill after Sept. 30,” he said. “If that’s the case, we’ll have more uncertainty and more stress … I’m not confident. What dynamics will change after the election that will make it easier to get a farm bill passed?”
Dale Moore, a deputy executive director of the U.S. Farm Bureau, who was a top staff member on the House Agriculture Committee in 1996 and a chief of staff to then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in 2007 said, “there was no practical effect” of the expirations in 1996 and 2007 because both bills were renewed before the start of the next crop year.
Like Braley, Moore said this year is different for two reasons — the drought that has plagued farmers across the country, especially in the Midwest, has caused special hardship. And extreme political polarization has essentially paralyzed Congress, making it less certain that a final bill will be reached quickly.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is most worried about the uncertainty for disaster relief, given this year’s drought. But he is optimistic that a bill can be passed sometime in the next few months, and he reminds Iowans that current programs are protected — for now.
“The 2012 crop is covered,” Harkin said. “What we don’t have are disaster provisions.”
Wayne Humphreys, 62, who was combining soybeans Friday on his farm near Columbus Junction, said he recalls no problems associated with the expiration of farm bills in 1996 and 2007.
Nor, he said, does he anticipate any problems with Congress’ delay in passing a farm bill this year.
“Not for me, personally, though I am sure the uncertainty is troubling for some farmers,” he said.
Humphreys said the lack of a farm bill will not affect his planting decisions for the 2013 crop year.
“My corn and soybean rotation is pretty well set. It would take something really big to affect it,” he said.
Orlan Love of The Gazette contributed to this story.