New year brings little certainty on farm bill process, budget

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Statements this week from agriculture leaders reinforced the uncertainty surrounding the agriculture budget and the process for reauthorizing federal farm policy in the 113th Congress.

The New Year’s fiscal cliff deal included an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill for one year, including existing Title I farm safety net programs.

Direct payments, which were targeted for certain elimination in the 2012 Farm Bill proposals that passed the Senate and House Agriculture Committee, were part of the extension, and USDA recently confirmed it will issue the payments this fall unless some other legislation changes the law before that time.

Threats to the program, which many farmers value but most in the public don’t support, are expected to be numerous. This week, an unsuccessful amendment surfaced to move funding for direct payments to Hurricane Sandy relief.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said this week USDA will allow farmers to get out of – or into – the ACRE program for the term of the one-year extension. ACRE was written such that farmers had to remain in it for the life of the farm bill after signing up the first time. The extension evidently did not continue this specification.

With several serious fiscal issues looming before Congress, agriculture leaders are not yet setting firm timetables for new farm bill work.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) has yet to say when he will hold new farm bill hearings. Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) previously said hearings could be set as early as February, but recently said April is more realistic.

Peterson also previously wrote to House Leadership that he was not interested in participating in hearings until he received assurances a Committee-passed bill would be brought to the floor. He has since said he will not obstruct the Committee process regardless.

On Tuesday, Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) called for a new farm bill during an annual “State of Michigan Agriculture” speech. Stabenow has indicated she will work toward a new bill in the 113th Congress but has not yet given a time frame for hearings or a mark-up.

Vilsack has said repeatedly in recent days that Congress must pass long-term farm policy. On Monday, he delivered that message while speaking at the American Farm Bureau Federation meeting and in a statement announcing he would remain in his job for President Barack Obama’s second term.

An important determinant of how a new farm bill gets written and passed will be the funding available for it. The Obama Administration all but confirmed this week it would not meet the statutory deadline for a new budget proposal to be delivered to Congress, with the delay possibly extending into March.

Budget drafting is being complicated by a trifecta of fiscal uncertainties that will require action by Congress. Part of the New Year’s compromise passed to address the fiscal cliff was a two-month delay of pending sequestration cuts, and it’s unclear if those cuts will go into effect or be delayed again. The Treasury Department has announced the nation’s debt ceiling must be raised as early as mid-February to allow the government to continue to pay its bills, which has set off another round of negotiations about spending and revenue. And, “regular” funding for the federal government – currently through a six-month continuing resolution – expires at the end of March.

Wheat growers from NAWG-affiliated state associations will be in Washington the last week of January to talk with Members, staff and Administration officials about the process and content of new farm policy. NAWG, of course, will remain engaged and report to state stakeholders as new information is available.

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