Farm bill, a year overdue, still rolling on slow track
The new U.S. farm bill, already a year behind schedule, is on the congressional equivalent of a slow freight train - rolling from acrimony to limbo with a layover in stalemate. And Washington's disputes over the federal budget and national debt could mean further delays.
A stopgap extension of current law runs out on Monday. Negotiators from the House of Representatives and the Senate may take up the bill in the next week or two.
Traditionally, this group reconciles disagreements and brings a compromise bill to a final vote. But analysts say the standoffs on the budget and debt limit are likely to delay consideration of the farm bill, as well as make the bill a target for cuts when budget savings are needed.
Given the deep divisions between the Republican-controlled House and the Senate, where Democrats are in the majority, negotiators may arrive at the table with irreconcilable ideas of what to put into a final version of the bill.
In the end, Congress could fast-track an alternative - such as an extension of the current law for a second straight year - if the farm bill goes off the rails or never builds enough steam to move ahead.
"The road to the 2013 farm bill is not without a few major stumbling blocks along the way and potentially catastrophic caverns into which the bill could fall," said agricultural economist Vince Smith of Montana State University, author of many articles on the farm bill.
Smith said a two-year extension of current law is the most likely outcome. Others say anything from legislative success to a complete stymie is possible. "It's a pretty stalemated situation," said Otto Doering, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.
The overarching issue: food stamps for the poor, accounting for three-fourths of outlays forecast for $500 billion over five years. The Senate voted to pare food stamp spending by $4.5 billion over a decade through closure of a loophole on utility costs.
But the House, in a party-line vote, called for food stamp cuts of $40 billion through tighter eligibility rules that end benefits for 10 percent of recipients in 2014. The rules would shorten the number of weeks that some people could get food stamps and eliminate a 1996 welfare-reform provision that allows benefits to people with slightly higher income or assets.
Overall, the Senate bill would spend $23 billion less over a decade than the current law would were it to stay in place. The House would cut $55 billion.
Less daunting are disputes over farm subsidies in a bill that would expand the taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance program by 10 percent. The Senate would require wealthy farmers to pay more for coverage and require all farmers to employ soil and water conservation measures to qualify for subsidized premiums. The government pays 61 cents of the dollar on premiums.