Already Time for Another Farm Bill?

Posted: 8/29/2017

By Dale Thorenson

Most farmers mark the passing years with references to crop years. “1977 was the year we were hailed out. 1988, now that drought had to rival those our elders suffered through during the Dirty Thirties. 1999, who knew prices could go so low! 2010, a bumper crop and great prices!”  

The aggies who work on agricultural issues in Washington D.C. use a different but similar measurement to mark the passage of time: the farm bill. Those musings include “this will be my fourth farm bill” or “what a newbie, this will be my eighth.” “Remember when the House passed the bill with the trade title missing and had to pass it again? And the President vetoed them both so they had to have two separate votes to override his veto?” As the conversations and memories go, there is drama with each large piece of legislation.

The Agriculture Act of 2014 – aka the 2014 Farm Bill – expires on September 30, 2018. That’s in just a little over a year.  The House and Senate Agriculture Committees began holding hearings earlier this year and professional staff are fleshing out specific titles. The House Agriculture Committee hopes to mark up and report out the 2018 Farm Bill this fall, if it can be assured of time to consider and pass the bill on the House floor. The Senate would likely follow suit a few months later. Then in a perfect world, the House and Senate versions would be conferenced in late winter with final passage by early spring. So, plenty of time, right?

Wrong.  The 2014 Farm Bill took over two and a half years (about 920 days) to complete. The process officially started on August 2, 2011 with the passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011. The final bill was finally signed into law on February 7, 2014.  A great deal of drama played out between those days, way more than one needs or wants to get into, other than it was supposed to be a 2012 Farm Bill, then a 2013 Farm Bill ... The bottom line is, the stars will need to align perfectly for the 2018 bill to be finished by the time the 2014 one expires.

Congress has two items it must complete this year: pass 12 annual appropriations bills and increase the national debt limit. Congress already has a healthy wish list of items it wants to do: repeal the Affordable Care Act (which looks increasingly unlikely), pass major tax reform (which requires a fiscal year 2018 bicameral budget to be passed) and pass a major infrastructure bill (something President Trump has championed with no specific details).  

The farm bill will come after the first two “must pass” items are finished and the other items either pass or fail. That’s why the House Agriculture Committee will wait to see if there is “time” on the floor to consider the farm bill.

If farm bill deliberation slips into late spring 2018, election year politics will increasingly hinder progress. A third of the Senate is up for election next year with 23 Democrats and two Independents aligned with them. This includes 10 Democrats in states President Trump won, and only eight Republicans. To make things even more difficult, seven members of the Senate Agriculture Committee are up for election – all Democrats. 

So, what happens if Congress can’t pass a farm bill by the end of September 2018? It will be forced to extend the 2014 Farm Bill for some time – most likely an additional year – or face the prospects of reverting to permanent farm law, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938.

Reverting to permanent law would bring back parity support for milk and the program crops of that era (not oilseeds, pulse crops, etc.), acreage allotments and chaos. Permanent law is a cliff that no one wants to go over and so it is the hammer that requires Congress to either get a bill done or pass an extension of the latest bill until they do. 

2019 is not an election year and would be more conducive for progress. The only problem is that the farm bill budget baseline will likely erode further by then, leaving less money to write the legislation. Therefore, the Agriculture Committees would like to get a 2018 Farm Bill finished in the next year rather than defaulting to a 2019 Farm Bill. Although hope springs eternal, time will tell which scenario play out.

Dale Thorenson is a policy expert with Gordley Associations in Washington, D.C.

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