THE clock is ticking, and legislators are heading into the final hour of the lame-duck session without a gift for rural America this Christmas.
The chance of Congress passing a five-year farm bill was all but snuffed out late last Tuesday when word came from Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) that he did not believe he could muster the necessary votes for a deal on the fiscal cliff if anything else -- like a farm bill -- is attached to the measure.
Separate negotiations on the fiscal cliff -- the combination of tax increases and spending cuts set to hit in January -- also appear to have stalled, with Boehner proceeding on his "Plan B," which he eventually did not bring to the floor last Thursday after realizing that he didn't have sufficient votes.
It is almost certain that both chambers of Congress will return after Christmas to complete the 112th session. How or if farm policy will be addressed then is still unknown.
Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) rejected the notion that there is no legislative vehicle by which to move a farm bill before the end of the year. She also threw her support behind an agricultural disaster assistance amendment to a bill that would provide aid to victims of Super-storm Sandy. That is one of the few bills anticipated to move before the congressional recess.
The National Farmers Union passed a resolution opposing an extension of the 2008 farm bill, with president Roger Johnson noting that any "short-term extension of the farm bill would only cause a litany of problems that will not be easily fixed when a new farm bill eventually is signed into law."
Many farm groups are concerned that the new baseline from the Congressional Budget Office next year will result in even larger and disproportionate cuts to agricultural spending.
One of the most talked-about repercussions of not passing a farm bill is reverting to 1949 law. For one, it would force the government to buy milk at roughly twice the current market price to maintain a stable milk market.
"Fiscal cliff tax increases would hit middle-class families' pocketbooks, but so would paying six or seven dollars for a gallon of milk. It is absolutely critical that Congress pass a new five-year farm bill to keep food prices stable," Stabenow said in a statement Dec. 21.
In a conference call with reporters last Thursday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is exploring all of its options for dealing with the possibility of reverting to 1949 law.
"We will do whatever we are legally obligated to do in a timely way," said Vilsack, who declined to be specific on that timeline. He said USDA is looking at how similar situations were handled in the past to know how to proceed on Jan. 1.
USDA could drag its heels on the milk purchases until Congress passes a new farm bill or an extension of the 2008 bill that expired in September.
However, if the 1949 law ensues, Vilsack said it could not only create higher milk prices at the grocery store but also put food processors in the position of having to find substitutes and could put a strain on the nation's nutrition programs.