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Scabs ripe for picking

By Seymour Klierly

As the United States teetered on the edge of the self-imposed fiscal cliff, the policy decisions--or lack thereof--have already set the stage for even more contentious debates and disagreements in Washington. While the farm bill extension passed as an attachment to H.R. 8, the "American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012," it was not the version that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, and House Chairman Frank Lucas, R-OK, proposed and supported. Although Congress has entered a new session, resetting the table and coming together for the good of agriculture and the nation is a tall task ahead.

Legislatively, Congress has until Sept. 30 to pass a new reauthorization of the farm bill, or if it chooses, another extension of the 2008 farm bill. After all the good work of the last two years by the agriculture committees, they have to start over. Both the House and Senate committees are going to have to mark up their agriculture legislation, pass it out of the committees, and battle again for floor time.

Scars from 2012 may get in the way of moving farm policy forward. In the waning hours before the fiscal cliff package was set, a window opened for the farm bill extension. Lucas introduced the version he and Stabenow agreed upon in the House. The 150-page-plus extension was dead on arrival as Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, strongly opposed the dairy reform provisions.

Knowing that Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, were close to finalizing the entire package, Stabenow circled her Senate colleagues and demanded a broader extension. At the end of the day McConnell went ahead and included only a basic extension of the 2008 farm bill that would not include any reforms nor increase any costs on taxpayers. Stabenow and Lucas are not likely to forget that leadership bucked them both when the time came for action.

Help is not likely to come quickly at the number two slot of the respective committees. In the House, Representative Collin Peterson, D-MN, has already lashed out. In a letter to Boehner he stated, "I see no reason why the House Agriculture Committee should undertake the fool's errand to craft another long-term farm bill if the Republican Leadership refuses to give any assurances that our bipartisan work will be considered." On the Senate side, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-MS, asserted his seniority to become the ranking member of the ag committee. He certainly has a different perspective than Sen. Pat Roberts, R-KS, when it comes to the commodity title and may push for a fight over his parochial interests.

Complicating the calendar and the attention of members of Congress are other exhausting issues. The nation is expecting in-depth debates over gun control, immigration, the debt ceiling, deficit spending, and President Barack Obama's cabinet nominations. Finding time or money for wide-scale and thorough debates on agriculture policy will not be any easier this year than last.

Editor's note: Seymour Klierly writes Washington Whispers for the Journal from inside the Beltway.

Date: 1/21/2013

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