(UPDATED COVERAGE, 5:10 p.m) In a Congress that has kicked many cans down the road, the farm bill has become just one more.
With votes lacking to pass a farm bill or a discussed one-year extension before the August recess, the House of Representatives instead approved a disaster relief bill for drought-hit farmers and ranchers by a margin of 223 to 197.
In a contentious political environment, the House has stalled work for now on the 2012 farm bill despite a chorus of voices from agriculture — including specialty crop interests — to finish the job before farm programs expire in September.
Diane Kurrle, vice president of public affairs with the U.S. Apple Association, Vienna, Va., said Aug. 2 that votes were not there to extend the farm bill by a year, as Republican leaders had wanted to do.
When they return to session in September after the August recess, Congress will probably use the disaster assistance bill to carry a short-term or one-year extension of the current farm bill before it expires Sept. 30, said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh Produce Association.
“I don’t think they will walk away from this and do nothing this year,” Guenther said. “They’ve got to do something on the farm bill.”
The probability of the farm bill getting done in September is quite low, said Randy Russell, president of Washington, D.C.-based Russell Group, and advisor to the United Fresh Produce Association. More likely, he said, the farm bill may be taken up in the lame duck session after the election.
However, also competing for attention at the end of the year will be the so-called Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the estate tax, the payroll tax and sequestration.
Russell said one option — what he called the clearest option to farm bill passage this year — may be to conference the Senate farm bill and the House Agriculture Committee approved farm bill in the lame duck session. Lawmakers could use the savings in the legislation — expected to be about $30 billion over 10 years — to partially pay for the cost of other bills at the end of the year, he said.
If Congress doesn’t get the farm bill done at the end of the year, Russell said it will be the first time in the seven farm bills he has been involved with that the work on the legislation has spanned three calendar years.
Senate and House Agriculture Committee leaders recommended a package for the Supercommittee last fall and Congress has grappled with the legislation all of this year without success.
“What it points to is that it is increasingly difficult in this political environment to pass farm bill and it isn’t getting any easier next year,” he said.
Russell said the key is finding the right vehicle to deliver a farm bill this year.
“I’m confident we can end up with a bill that is very good for the specialty crop industry.”