CONGRESS was on recess last week, preventing any action on a farm bill agreement until the week of Jan. 27, and some believe it could very likely stretch into early February as House Republicans are away Jan. 29-31 for a party-wide retreat.
Despite signs of progress, official details have yet to be released, and any agreement between the principle negotiators would have a number of hurdles to clear before becoming law.
"The good news is that we are the closest we have been in the last three years to getting a long-term farm bill signed into law," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) said Jan. 21 when visiting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Human Nutrition Research Center in Grand Forks, N.D. "The bill has been exhaustively debated. It is time for a compromise bill to be presented and for it to be put up for a vote."
Hill staff said principals are still working through some of the outstanding issues. At present, a meeting has not been scheduled, a House Agriculture Committee spokesperson said last Thursday.
One main outstanding issue is the country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule. The National Pork Producers Council said it is urging conferees to include changes to the new rule in the farm bill to make COOL compliant with World Trade Organization rules.
Reports indicate that the U.S. Trade Representative, which must defend the law on the world scene, is also lobbying the conference committee to replace current COOL requirements with either a "Product of North America" label for meat from animals imported into the U.S. or a "Product of USA" label for meat from animals exclusively produced in the U.S.
Nearly 100 groups, including R-CALF USA, wrote to conferees outlining why COOL should not be touched in the farm bill.
"Now is not the time to roll back the country-of-origin labeling provisions behind the closed doors of the conference process. Any changes to country-of-origin labeling should occur in full view of the American public, with ample debate and recorded votes," the groups wrote.
National Farmers Union (NFU) president Roger Johnson also warned, "If any harmful changes to COOL are included in the farm bill, it could very likely affect NFU's ability to support the entire farm bill."
Two other provisions important to the livestock industry pertain to the Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) provision and the King amendment.
The pork council said it supports a provision to prevent GIPSA from writing a rule that dictates the terms of private livestock contracts. The language has been included in several recent appropriations bills.
The King amendment would prohibit a state from excluding sales within its borders of lawfully produced agricultural products from other states.
How to address payment limitations still needs to be worked out between southern and midwestern interests.
Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said she has heard rumors both ways on the need for a meeting of the conferees versus just signing off on any final deal.
"I have to believe there has to be a meeting. If (Rep.) Steve King (R., Iowa) doesn't get his way on the Commerce Clause, he'll want a meeting so he can have a vote. If COOL is no longer mandatory, (Sen. Max) Baucus (D., Mont.) will want a vote," and the list goes on, Thatcher explained.
"Plus, I think you will just have conferees that will be embarrassed to go home and tell constituents that the only thing they got to do in a conference committee was give a three-minute opening speech," she added.