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Hopes dim for farm bill this year

Dec. 5, 2013
 
Milk Bottle, Glass of Milk, Cheese, Butter and a Spoon / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are still trying to hammer out a compromise on a five-year farm bill, but hopes are dimming that they will succeed by the end of the year, when a provision affecting dairy is set to expire.

“I’m optimistic about getting the farm bill done, I’m pessimistic that it’ll be done by Dec. 30,” said Rep. Reid Ribble, the only member of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation with a seat on the House Agriculture Committee.

That means members of Congress will once again have to pass a temporary extension if they want to avert going over the so-called milk cliff as the system reverts back to a 1949 law expected to drive up milk prices by as much as 50 percent. They could then try again to reach a deal on longer-term legislation when Congress returns in January.

Ribble, Republican of Sherwood, believes an extension will get passed to avert the milk cliff, although that would need to happen in the next week. The House is scheduled to leave Washington for the year next Friday, and the Senate is currently planning to depart around Dec. 19.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have been working behind closed doors in a conference committee to craft a compromise between House and Senate versions of a farm bill that can be voted on by both chambers.

Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin agrees with Ribble. She expects both chambers of Congress won’t pass a compromise until early next year, but she hailed the leadership of Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan.

“Senator Stabenow has shown strong leadership moving the Farm Bill forward so I’m optimistic that we can do in the conference committee what we did in the Senate and pass a bipartisan, five-year farm bill,” the Madison Democrat said in a statement. “As our economy continues to recover, we must take advantage of every chance to create economic growth and boost an industry that puts nearly 350,000 Wisconsinites to work.”

The 41 lawmakers working on farm bill negotiations must sort out a series of issues including placing limits on how much in federal subsidies an individual farmer may receive; revising the definition of a farmer to prevent non-farmers from receiving large benefit payouts; and setting target price levels to determine when commodity prices will make farmers eligible for payments. Also critical is the divide between the House and Senate over food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The House legislation has cuts of $39 billion over 10 years compared to $4.5 billion in the Senate bill. Democratic and GOP leaders have shown no sign publicly of being willing to compromise.

Congress has struggled to craft a farm bill to replace the 2008 measure, the bulk of which expired Sept. 30, 2012. The dairy provision expires Dec. 31. Earlier this year, lawmakers extended the legislation through the end of September in the hope that the delay would provide them more time to reach a deal. Democratic leaders in the Senate have said they are opposed to another extension.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said farmers and ranchers in rural America are holding back on investing and planning for the future because they don't have a farm bill in place.

“I'm confident that (Congress is) going to find the sweet spot in all of this. I'm encouraging them to find it sooner rather than later because the uncertainty of not having a bill for this length of time is in fact having an impact in the countryside,” Vilsack said. “They are holding back because they just aren't certain what the rules are going to be.”

Vilsack said he was hopeful the USDA wouldn't have to implement the 1949 farm law, but the department is preparing for it if Congress is unable to pass a new farm bill or extend the 2008 law. “Our focus right now is on trying to get the bill done, and when and if Congress indicates to us they're not capable of getting it done and extension is not likely, then we'll be in a position to do what we have to do,” he said.

Contact dslack@usatoday.com. Follow @donovanslack.

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