WASHINGTON — The election is over, and a lame-duck Congress is returning to work, but the uncertainty lingering over the federal farm bill isn’t going anywhere.
The House and Senate both return to Washington on Tuesday, six weeks after Republican House leaders allowed the five-year farm bill to expire without even bringing it up for a floor vote.
But unrelated bills will initially dominate the Senate agenda, and House leaders will be consumed with negotiations with President Barack Obama over the so-called “fiscal cliff” looming at the end of the year over taxing and spending decisions.
The farm bill’s expiration on Oct. 1 automatically reverted the nation’s agriculture system to the 1949 version of the bill, threatening a variety of programs and services, but because the most recent bill was written to apply to crop years, not calendar years, there is less of a practical effect until next spring. Dairy programs that expire on Jan. 1 without congressional action are an exception.
The good news is that the Senate already passed its version of the bill in June, and the House Agriculture Committee passed a competing version in September as well.
That leaves only a final vote by the full House, and then conference negotiations between the two chambers. The three main players will stay the same — despite a number of seats in each chamber changing in January with the new Congress, the House will stay under Republican control while the Senate will stay in Democratic hands and Obama has four more years in the White House.
Iowa’s congressional delegation is ready to call renewed focus to the need for a new bill as quickly as possible.
An aide to Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, for one, said he plans to resume the petition drive he launched this summer to force a House vote on the bill. The petition has been on hold while Congress has been in recess.
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, a past chairman and current member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said changing budget and cost estimates will make it more difficult to write a new bill in 2013. Like others, he also noted that much of the work has already been done on a bipartisan basis.
“In a new Congress the farm bill writing has to start over, which doesn’t mean everything has to be redone from scratch, but delaying to a new Congress necessitates a good deal more time and uncertainty for markups, floor action, and hearings,” Harkin told The Gazette.
One scenario that appears increasingly possible is a short-term extension of the expired bill. House leaders considered that in September, but never formally brought the idea forward. Such extensions are typical on Capitol Hill, particularly regarding thorny fiscal issues, but Iowa’s delegation said the idea would create headaches for farmers who need certainty in their budgeting and planning decisions.
“There are so many questions with the 1949 law that it’s imperative that we pass some sort of farm bill,” said Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, also an Agriculture Committee member and a farmer himself. “I support passing a new five-year bill, but in order to get something done we may have to simply extend the current law for a year. But we need to take advantage of any window of opportunity to get a new five-year bill passed to give farmers the certainty they deserve.”
NO PROBLEMS SO FAR
At the U.S. Farm Bureau, one of the country’s top federal-level agriculture lobbying groups, deputy executive director Dale Moore said officials there have heard no indication that the farm bill would come up in the House or Senate anytime soon. However, he said he is also unaware of any problems that have been caused around the country by the expiration of the most recent bill.
“From a practical standpoint, the first overt action is whatever happens with dairy programs on Jan 1,” Moore said. “Our hope is that we’ll hear something soon, and we don’t have to go all the way back to square one.
“There’s already two bipartisan bills, so we hope both sides take what they’ve got done and finalize it as quickly as they can,” Moore added.
But some congressional veterans are more doubtful. Congress has been particularly paralyzed this year because of election-year tensions, so much so that Braley was pessimistic in September when asked about the bill’s chances after the election.
“I’m not confident. What dynamics will change after the election that will make it easier to get a farm bill passed?” Braley said at the time.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., gave a news conference in Washington last week after the election without mentioning the farm bill on the Senate’s upcoming agenda. However, he said he hopes a spirit of bipartisanship will be more possible now that the election is finally over.
“We can achieve really big things when we work together. That’s what the American people said in a big way,” Reid said.