Limited time, opportunity for a five-year Farm Bill

Optimal outcome: Wrap it into a larger package if policy is right.

By Reece Langley
VP, Government Affairs
USA Rice Federation

For some time now, the fate of the Farm Bill has been entangled in the larger debate over budget and taxes. Since 2010, policymakers have said they need to slash the Farm Bill to tame deficits, and that the Farm Bill could use the legislative ride that a deal on taxes and the budget might offer.

We got a good glimpse of this possibility last year during the super committee process. And, despite the Farm Bill and larger budget issues going separate ways this year, they appear as connected as ever in the lame duck session – a linkage that may carry into next year.

But there are even bigger issues to address: Will the president agree to extend the Bush tax cuts in exchange for revenue increases as part of an overhaul of the tax code? Or will Republicans agree to extend Bush tax cuts except for those in the top brackets? Will entitlements, including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, see cuts?

Can the president and Congress strike a “grand bargain” that establishes a sustainable relationship between annual deficits and gross domestic product or settle for a smaller agreement that turns off automatic budget cuts required over the next 10 years? Will policymakers delay automatic cuts scheduled for next year to buy more time to make these big decisions?

Various Scenarios

If leaders can’t resolve the impasse over taxes this fall, a deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff” won’t happen. One can presume that a government resigned to tax hikes and deep budget cuts can also resign itself to an expired Farm Bill. Even if an agreement is reached on taxes, tax reform is a monumental undertaking to complete in a month. So, expect the framework this year, but the reform in 2013.

Few see a grand bargain this fall, so the task may possibly be limited to turning off automatic budget cuts. The super committee process reached consensus last year on items to be cut – including farm policy and food stamps, although there was disagreement on how much from each, with the Senate and House having different aggregate savings and cuts to food stamps.

If Washington tackles the big issues this fall, chances are greater for a five-year Farm Bill. If lawmakers punt matters into next year, a modified extension of current law is possible. A five-year Farm Bill could be wrapped into a larger package this fall with its savings used as a budget offset – an optimal outcome provided the policy is right.

Or, the current Farm Bill could be extended as part of a larger package that establishes a framework but leaves all the heavy lifting of deficit reduction, including writing a new Farm Bill, for next year. If Washington failed to turn off automatic cuts, these cuts would be far lower than those proposed under the Senate and House Farm Bills.

Agriculture Committees Inspire Hope There’s less than a month between Thanksgiving recess and Christmas, so spending a full week of House floor time on the Farm Bill makes no sense, especially if the bill will be rolled into a larger package. Protracted debate in the lame duck session on the bigger issues of budget and taxes will leave little time to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill, including total savings, cuts to food stamps and the composition of the commodity title.

Leaders of the Agriculture Committees have done it before, when given time. This achievement, along with their efforts to keep the current law intact over the past two years, inspires hope in a time of doubt and uncertainty.

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