A new farm bill likely won’t be marked up until after Congress deals with a host of fiscal- and budget-related issues, top House agriculture lawmakers said January 16. Those include averting across-the-board spending cuts set to take place at the end of February, passing legislation to keep the government funded through the rest of the year and dealing with the debt ceiling.
Before the holidays, House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) had been aiming for a Feb. 27 markup of a new farm bill, which funds conservation and energy initiatives as well as commodity subsidies and the national food stamp program.
“The lay of the land has shifted pretty dramatically in the last few weeks,” Lucas told reporters yesterday. “The challenges, the debt ceiling, [continuing resolution], sequestration coming up at the end of February — that makes it a really complicated time.”
Last year, a version of the bill languished in the House for several months after GOP leaders refused to bring it to a vote. The fiscal cliff deal signed into law at the beginning of this year provided a partial nine-month extension of 2008 legislation, forcing the House and Senate Agriculture committees to begin work this year on a new bill.
“I’ll know when the time is right when my political gut tells me it’s right. And I just can’t give you a better answer than that,” Lucas said when asked to be more specific on a markup date. “We’ve not been playing by the conventional rulebook on legislation for some time, for years now, so I’m just going to have to play it by ear.”
The delay in marking up and passing a farm bill could have devastating consequences, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) warned yesterday.
If work begins after the Congressional Budget Office releases its yearly estimates of what the bill costs, expected in March, the Agriculture committees will likely be dealing with less money from which to base a new bill.
More potentially damaging, Peterson said, would be if Congress or the White House digs into direct payments to look for savings for any of the fiscal-related legislation coming down the pipeline.
Direct payments, included in the farm bill, are subsidies given to farmers regardless of the actual acres that are planted in a given year. The nine-month extension provides $5 billion to continue them this year, and there are growing calls on both sides of the political aisle for using them to provide savings in fiscal legislation, Peterson said.
If the payments are eliminated before a new farm bill is written, that money wouldn’t be available to offset the continuation of other programs in the bill, Peterson warned. Those include energy, conservation, organic and other smaller programs.
“There wouldn’t be an energy title. There wouldn’t be a lot of things,” Peterson said. “I don’t know how you’d pass a bill, because what would happen, I would guess, is that the Republicans would make up for it out of food stamps. And then you’ll get a bill that you can’t conference with the Senate.”
Peterson also said he wasn’t sure he would vote for a farm bill in the first place without a written commitment from House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to bring the legislation to a floor vote. On Jan. 3, Peterson sent a frustrated letter to Boehner with such a request and said yesterday that he hadn’t heard anything in response.
While Peterson said yesterday that he wouldn’t necessarily boycott a markup, he added that he “may not be particularly helpful” when it comes to passing the bill.