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Farm bill tops list of unfinished business for Congress in 2013

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By Sara Wyant

What if you hired someone to complete a job that you thought would take a year and ended up taking more than two? In farm and ranch country, you’d start looking for someone else to do the job.

But in the halls of Congress, political finger-pointing and delays have become the norm, especially when it comes to the farm bill and other key pieces of legislation.

Legislative delays caused the 2002 farm bill to be extended six times before the 2008 farm bill was enacted. The 2008 farm bill was also extended several times—and the bill had to be re-enrolled once after passage because of a technical error that caused one of the titles to be omitted.

Still, it seems almost mind-numbing that the 2012 farm bill will now be kicked into 2014.

“It has now been more than 440 days since the farm bill first expired,” noted Sen. Pat Leahy, D-VT, on the Senate floor recently.

The former Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, who is a seven-time farm bill conferee, pointed out that farmers and ranchers are desperate to have a new farm bill enacted to give them the much-needed certainty for their planting and other farm decisions.

“Since the 2008 farm bill expired last year, we have seen parts of the country ravaged by blizzards that wiped out cattle herds while commodity prices slump. More than 20 programs, including the Organic Certification Cost Share Program, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Grant Program, livestock disaster, renewable energy programs, and assistance for rural small business owners have been stranded without updated charters, and the USDA has had to press the pause button since these programs are stuck with no authorized funding,” Leahy emphasized.

“Those who participate in these programs are left hanging. That is as unwise as it is unfair.”

However, the four principal negotiators have made it clear that they are unable to move forward on a new farm bill this year. They made a great deal of progress, but don’t expect to resume formal negotiations in early January 2014.

Of course, even if the chairmen and ranking members of the Agriculture Committees can agree on a path forward, there’s no guarantee that the measure can still pass the House and Senate and be signed by the president. But for now, optimism abounds for passage in 2014.

WRRDA even slower

If you think the farm bill has been moving at a snail’s pace, you ought to try watching the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which guides the Army Corps of Engineers on crucial water infrastructure projects. It’s been six long years since Congress passed Corps of Engineers water resources legislation, leaving many aging locks, dams and ports neglected.

“America currently enjoys a competitive advantage over other nations in the global marketplace because of our well-developed waterways infrastructure that makes it cheap and easy for our producers to transport goods to our ports and be shipped across the world,” explained Rep. Rick Crawford, R-AR, who serves on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee as well as the Agriculture Committee.

“Currently, roughly one-third of the United States’ Gross Domestic Product is generated by international trade, with 99 percent of those goods passing through our ports. If we fail to maintain these critical arteries of commerce, developing nations like Brazil who are investing in their own infrastructure to compete with our producers will diminish or erase this advantage we currently enjoy,” Crawford emphasized.

Both the House and Senate have named conferees, moving the WRRDA bill closer to final approval, but the conference committee must also wait until 2014.

Logjam ending?

In a sign that some of the delays may finally be ending, at least lawmakers finished up 2013 with a new bipartisan budget bill. Written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-WI, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-WA, the bill will provide $63 billion in temporary sequester relief and $85 billion in mandatory savings. It will eliminate waste and make needed reforms to some automatic spending increases.

While some spending will increase under this budget agreement, the budget and spending bill will reduce the deficit by a net of $23 billion over the next 10 years.

If some of these same reform-minded lawmakers will also support a new farm bill with anywhere from $23 billion to $40 billion in spending cuts next year, they can run for re-election next November with a pretty good story to tell about cutting the deficit and—for a change—getting something done for rural America.

Editor’s note: Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant can be reached at www.agri-pulse.com.

Date: 12/30/2013



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