As Congress bolts Washington this week for its pre-election recess, it will let lapse the massive federal farm bill, setting up a path for agricultural supports and subsidies to expire and return to a 1940s-era system — a scenario neither party nor the farm community is happy about.
The situation leaves lawmakers — particularly Republicans in the House where the measure has indefinitely stalled — fretting about having to face voters without the popular subsidies in hand.
Multiyear farm bills usually are among the most bipartisan legislative matters on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers from agricultural states and districts — despite party — come together to ensure their success. But with the bill stuck in the House due largely to intraparty bickering by Republicans, the current five-year farm bill will expire at the end of the month without a replacement.
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, told reporters Thursday he will punt the matter until the late-year lame duck session, saying a proposed five-year extension that cleared the House Agriculture Committee doesn't have the necessary 218 votes to pass.
"We've got people who believe there's not enough reform in the farm bill that came out of committee. We've got others who believe there's too much reform in the bill," the speaker said.
He wouldn't say whether he will push for a five-year measure — the typical length of farm bills — or a short extension lasting a few months.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate agriculture committee, disagrees, saying that while House Republicans may be split on the matter, their version would pass the chamber with Democratic support.
"We know that the [House] Republican caucus is split; frankly the Democratic caucus is split. But there are enough votes if you bring this up and allow a bipartisan vote," said the Michigan Democrat during a conference call with reporters Thursday.
The Senate in June easily passed a new five-year, $500 billion version that trims farm subsidies and land-conservation spending from the current bill. The bill has been praised on and off Capitol Hill for cutting costs by replacing direct subsidies to farmers with payments linked to market prices of crops, as well as money-saving food-stamp reforms.
But movement on the measure — which also pays for the federal food stamp program for the poor — collapsed in the House after conservative Republicans pushed for deeper cuts.
Some agriculture programs, such as crop insurance, will continue after September under a separate authorization. And funding for the food stamp program shouldn't be affected either, as it was included in a six-month stopgap bill to fund the federal government that Congress is expected to pass Friday or Saturday.
Dairy farmers in particular would be hurt sooner than others, as the Department of Agriculture's Milk Income Loss Contract Program, which compensates dairy producers when domestic milk prices fall below a specified level, will expire after Sept. 30.
The expiring farm bill also leaves Congress — particularly House Republican leaders — open to blame for leaving farmers vulnerable.
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said he was "deeply disappointed" by Mr. Boehner's decision to push the farm bill until after the elections.
"It is crystal clear that Republican leadership is what is holding the farm bill hostage," said Mr. Johnson in a prepared statement Thursday. "While the announcement comes as no surprise, punting the farm bill into the lame duck session is a transparent political maneuver that leaves rural America holding its collective breath about its livelihood and future."
John Wilson, senior vice president of Dairy Farmers of America, said passing a five-year bill is critical to help dairy farmers avoid a repeat of 2009, when the then-failing economy wrecked havoc on farmers, and "to ensure a future for the industry."
The two trade groups, along with several other influential agriculture-related outfits — including the American Farm Bureau — have united to form the Farm Bill Now coalition that is pushing Congress to pass a long-term bill. The group held a rally on the Capitol grounds last week.
This is the second time in five years a farm bill has expired without a replacement, as the 2002 version lapsed at the end of September and before the first of several short-term extensions passed in December 2007. A long-term deal wasn't finalized until 2008.
But the scenario in 2007 appeared less dire, as it wasn't an election year and Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.
Mrs. Stabenow said she isn't interested in passing a short-term extension when Congress returns to Capitol Hill in November, saying nothing short of a long-term comprehensive farm bill will do.
"If we can keep everybody focused on that when we'll actually be able to get it done," she said. "Right now I'm really not putting together a Plan B."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, expressed doubt that Mr. Boehner would even take up a farm bill this year, speculating he may push the matter to the next Congress in January.
"Not to have a farm bill is an irresponsible approach. It's not as if it took us by surprise," said Mrs. Pelosi during a Thursday briefing with reporters. "There is great disappointment in farm country on this issue."
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