D.C. Watch: Time ticking for Congress

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Congress has very little time to accomplish its to-do list this month!

The current funding for the government expires Jan. 15, and Congress must either pass an omnibus spending bill or another continuing resolution by then or the government will shut down again.

Many people hope Congress can finish the farm bill before the end of January, but there are surprisingly few actual work days left. The House is in session for 4 days next week and then takes off the week of January 20, along with the Senate. Then the House is back in session for 3 days before going off on a planning retreat.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is optimistic.

He expects Congress to pass a farm bill during January. So for now he is holding off on implementing permanent law from 1949 which would set the support prices for milk based on the parity price by default in the absence of a new farm bill. But he admits if Congress doesn’t act soon he has no option but to start the permanent law process in motion.

Implementation would mean retail prices for milk would about double from current levels, which may be dire enough to force Congress into action – especially this being an election year.

If efforts to pass a new farm bill fail, another extension of the 2008 farm bill will be a more likely next step.

USDA has extended the deadline for new enrollments in the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) for fiscal 2014 through Feb. 7.

USDA offices accept CSP applications year round, but producers need to get their applications in by the Feb.  7 deadline to be eligible for the program this year.

Over the past five years, USDA has enrolled 59 million acres in the CSP, which is a program designed to improve soil, water and air quality and reduce soil erosion and energy use. More information is available at www.nrcs.usda.gov.

USDA can charge a fee for providing technical assistance in developing conservation plans according to the budget deal agreed to last month. The fees could be as high as $150 per plan and it is estimated that it would total about $39 million over 10 years.

Several farm groups are calling on members of the Congressional Agriculture Committees to overturn the language allowing USDA to impose the fees. It is not clear that Congress will be willing or able to make the changes the farm groups are requesting.

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