One way to pass farm bill: Attach it to fiscal cliff

The most realistic avenue to getting members of Congress to act on the urgency of a new farm bill before U.S. shoppers begin to find products like milk on supermarket shelves at ludicrous prices, some experts say, is to bundle it with the one thing on everyone's mind as the year comes to an end: the so-called "fiscal cliff."

Since Oct. 1, when the 2008 agriculture law expired with the House and Senate unable to agree on an extension, U.S. farm rules have technically been operating under a 1949 "permanent" law. Because the 2008 law covered all crops planted in 2012, and federal funding for many agricultural programs is assured through March 2013, impacts of the default have – with some exceptions, like supplemental payments for dairy farmers – gone largely unnoticed.

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But that grace period ends Jan. 1, when consumers will begin to see everyday shopping list items spike to outrageous prices, with the implementation of incompatible regulations created 64 years ago. And, as Cornell University professor of agricultural economics Andrew Novakovic suggested, in the meantime Congress' attention may be otherwise occupied by the "fiscal cliff," a series of tax hikes and spending cuts set to go into effect the first of the year, which could hurl the United States into a dangerous recession.

"Tough situation in D.C.," Novakovic wrote in an email when asked about the most likely outcome for farm legislation. "Almost anything remains possible and I wouldn't bet a lot either for or against any outcome, but prospects for a proper farm bill before the end of the year are not good. I'm pretty sure if Congress can't come up with an agreement for a 'fiscal balloon' they won't be able to or inclined to do anything with a new farm bill."

In its own right, the "fiscal cliff" has for months stumped congressional leaders who, due to a split body and unprecedented Washington gridlock, have been unable to move beyond the impasse created by whether or not to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the top two percent of wealthiest Americans. But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who post-election has been in talks with President Obama and Senate Democrats, said he's confident they'll avert a tumble into recession – and also reportedly told House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas, R-Okla., a farm bill could be part of the solution.

"He assured me that was on their agenda and gave me the impression that it was one of the issues that will be addressed in the big picture sense…I assume he means sequestration and taxes," Lucas told Politico last week. "When the speaker answered my question, the way he acted, led me to believe – I'll put it that way -that they are focused on the big picture and this is one of those elements. No more specifics than that."

Lucas continued: "Whether it is part of the 'bridge' – he's used that phrase before – to the ultimate thing I don't know," Lucas said, adding of the bill's savings, which could be calculated into required spending cuts Jan. 1: "Clearly our $35 billion in the House package in savings has gotten somebody's attention."

The House farm bill, approved by Lucas' committee in July, never made it through the GOP-controlled chamber, due primarily to disagreements over how deeply to cut food stamps. The Democrat-controlled Senate passed its version – the "Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012" – in June.

A spokesperson for the House Agriculture Committee confirmed to it's "possible a farm bill could be part of a larger year-end package." Ranking members of both congressional chambers' committees, though, insist they're resolute to pass not just an extension of a prior farm program, but an entirely new law.

"I am absolutely, 110 percent against a one-year extension, and I will do everything in my power to stop it," Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said in an interview with AgriTalk radio. Peterson said he is "still hopeful" the full, five-year plan can get through Congress: "I really think they want to get this off their plate by the end of the year," he said.


Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, agreed: "Some way, somehow, we need to get a five-year farm bill passed," he told Politico. "There are an awful lot of farmers and ranchers and their lenders out there now who are sort of in financial purgatory."


In addition to controlling market goods pricing and supplemental product payments, the farm law covers funding for, among other things, food stamps, conservation efforts, crop insurance, and natural disaster assistance.

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