WASHINGTON — U.S. farmers who have already endured the most catastrophic drought in decades now face another looming problem: Congress.
Congress has until Sept. 30 to renew its farm bill — the federal legislation that authorizes farm programs as well as food stamps and other nutrition programs. But in reality, Congress has less than a week in actual legislative days to do so, a tight timeline even in non-election years.
Lawmakers say it is likely Congress will end up passing a one-year temporary reauthorization of the current bill, but farm organizations, as well as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, say such a temporary measure is insufficient, and could put farm programs more at risk of damaging mandatory cuts created by last year’s Budget Control Act.
“It’s a very uncertain situation, and it doesn’t have to be,” said Vilsack. He theorizes that House leadership is balking on bringing the bill to the floor because they’d like to see deeper cuts to both nutrition assistance programs and to commodity crop insurance.
The full Senate and the House Agriculture passed versions of the farm bill earlier this summer, with the Senate’s bill costing around $970 billion and the House bill costing about $958 billion. Both were considered bipartisan measures — typical for farm bills, farm groups say.
But the full House has been unable to muster the necessary votes to pass its measure, with much of the debate centered over how much to cut from the growing federal food stamp program.
Instead, the House last month passed a $383 million disaster assistance program aimed at livestock producers who are dealing with higher feed prices. The Senate has refused to approve that bill, saying instead that Congress must pass a five-year farm bill.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., has pressed the Senate to pass the disaster aid bill, saying he was “optimistic that in the coming weeks, we will also see enactment of legislation pertaining to all farm programs.”
But Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said it is “reckless” of the House not to take up the five-year bill.
“The farm bill is a jobs and innovation bill, an economic relief and development bill, and it affects every American every day,” he said.
The standoff has created gut-wrenching uncertainty for farmers who already are at the whim of Mother Nature. They say the longer the standoff lasts, the more it’ll impair their ability to plan for next season.
“If I ran my farm like this, I don’t think I’d be in business,” said Greg McGlinch, a fifth-generation grain farmer from near Versailles in Darke County.
He said farmers rely on federal farm dollars particularly during tough growing years — years such as this one, a year in which all 88 counties in Ohio have been named eligible for some sort of federal aid because of the weather. McGlinch said he’s watched farmers sell off their pigs rather than feed them with increasingly expensive feed corn.
Yvonne Lesicko of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation said the standoff has spurred farmers to question a safety net that helps preserve the nation’s food supply.
“Farmers live every day knowing there are factors outside of their control that will absolutely affect their businesses and their livelihoods,” she said. “They’re fine with that — they chose to live with that uncertainty. But the one thing they do need is the farm bill.”
Vilsack said a temporary reauthorization would cost more money long-term and be a target when Congress comes back in November and begins paring $1.2 trillion from the federal budget for next year.
“An extension, I think, is smoke and mirrors, and it adds to the cost when we’re really trying to focus on a reasonable approach to deficit reduction,” he said.
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