THE path to passing a farm bill in 2012 appeared to lead up a hill too big for Congress to climb, and unfortunately, members now face an even more daunting road ahead to get a new bill finished in 2013.
Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) is expected to take the lead on passing a bill out of committee first, rather than the House taking it on, as in previous years.
Stabenow had indicated that she could hold a markup of the farm bill in her committee in February. However, she is not positive she can follow that schedule because Congress will be dealing with the sequester and debt ceiling legislation and will take a break for Presidents' Day.
She will team up with new ranking member Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) to shepherd a bipartisan bill to the floor in the Senate. Cochran, who criticized the Senate's handling of southern crops in its 2012 farm bill proposal, likely will help the chamber reach a compromise on the commodity title, which divided the support of southern and midwestern producers. Also, since a staggering 21% of Mississippi's population receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, settling the nutrition funding issue is also important to Cochran.
House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) earlier indicated that he, too, would hold a markup at the end of February. However, he recently said he may delay that markup.
Complicating matters, House Agriculture Committee ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) sent letters to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R., Ohio) and majority leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) asking for their assurances that the full House would act on any bill the agriculture committee approves. Without those assurances, Peterson has said he sees no reason for his committee to begin the process of writing a new bill.
Collin Woodall, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., said Cochran's priorities for the committee could be different. Woodall expects the 2012 farm bill proposals to be the starting point in 2013 but said they likely will be quickly dismissed, and the committees will start from scratch.
Andrew Novakovic, professor of agricultural economics at Cornell University, said a 2013 farm bill could look quite different from the 2012 farm bill that emerged from the Senate and the House Agriculture Committee discussions.
"Educated guesses are that the 2013 conditions will be less favorable for agriculture and food programs," he said.
Craig Jagger, a principal at Legis Consulting and a former Capitol Hill staffer, noted that some key questions remain unanswered.
The agriculture committees tried several times last year to hitch the farm bill to another bill, such as the Super Committee and fiscal cliff deals.
Jagger explained that, because of the savings agriculture committee leaders touted, there are opportunities to attach the farm bill to other bills that address raising the debt ceiling or modifying the sequesters. A continuing resolution pushed the appropriations bill for 2013 to March, so that offers another potential vehicle.
An agreement dealing with spending levels could settle exactly how much the agriculture committees are expected to cut in the next farm bill. Last year, the gap in nutrition spending alone ranged from $4.5 billion in the Senate farm bill to $122 billion in the House budget plan.
Jagger also noted that the March 2013 Congressional Budget Office scoring baseline for agriculture committee programs could be significantly different from its March 2012 scoring baseline.