Striking a bipartisan tone, the first public meeting of the farm bill conference committee on Oct. 30 gave only small hints of the struggle that still remains to pass a five-year farm bill this year.
“It is time to put together a bill that can pass both Houses and be signed into law by the President,” Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn, House Agriculture Committee ranking member. said in his opening statement. “I believe that if the conference committee is left alone and allowed to do our work, we’ll be able to find some middle ground and finish the farm bill. “
Despite the apparent optimism on the committee for reaching a deal, industry advocates said time is short for the conference committee to complete its work.
“We’re off and running and we will see what happens between now and the end of December,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.
While specialty crop representation on the farm bill conference committee is strong, Guenther said it will be issues related to food stamps, commodity subsidies, the dairy program and crop insurance that will drive the outcome of conference committee.
While there may be a 50-50 chance to get the five-year farm bill passed, Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said the legislative calendar is working against quick farm bill progress. The House of Representatives is out of session the week of Nov. 4-10 and both the House and Senate will be out Thanksgiving week.
One positive sign, Guenther said, is that Republican and Democratic leaders have vowed to work through the recesses to craft a bill.
Lawmakers face big questions on commodity subsidy policy and food stamp funding, Hoefner said.
“Hopefully this year, unlike last year, we will actually get to the final act of getting a bill passed,” Hoefner said.
If a farm bill is not passed by late December, Congress will again have to consider an extension to the current farm bill, despite strong opposition from some lawmakers to that option.
Another possibility, Hoefner and Guenther said, is that the farm bill could be included in budget talks related to the next possible government shutdown in mid-January.
“It will be difficult to do a conference report and pass it on its own,” Guenther said.