The lull time in U.S. Congress before the start of the new year may be called the lame duck session, but Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburghsays legislators will need to get work in a hurry work to pass a five-year farm bill before the year ends in December.
Congress allowed the farm bill passed in 2008 to expire Sept. 30 without passing the new version drafted this year to replace it. While that farm bill was approved by the Senate in June, House leaders blocked it from being voted on before the election, even after it was OKd in July by the House Agriculture Committee.
Mr. Owens said Congress will now be pressured to pass the farm bill during three weeks of legislative session after Thanksgiving. If its not, the timeline for getting the job done would likely be pushed back for several months into 2013, leaving farmers in the north country Mr. Owens represents in limbo.
Many of us continue to bring up the bill in the lame duck session, and we were promised by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor several weeks ago it would be now, he said. It wasnt on the docket this week, but Im hopeful it will be when we come back after Thanksgiving.
Some lawmakers have pushed for a short-term extension of the expired bill, but Mr. Owens has stood against that plan because he doesnt want to see the full bill scrapped.
Approving an extension would be more complicated than one might think, he said. We need to make sure were covering all aspects of the plan, and an extension would take just as much time to get done as passing the bill.
One concern Mr. Owens has is ongoing pushback from Republican leaders in the House whove prevented the bill from being voted on. Theyve done so, he contended, because they wish to pass the bill using only votes from Republicans and not rely on Democrats.
Before the election they didnt want to pass the bill using only Democrats, and it is unclear to me whether that belief has changed, he said. My belief is they are still struggling to get enough votes to get to 218.
Nevertheless, Mr. Owens is optimistic that Republicans and Democrats will be more likely to cooperate than the were before the election. Bipartisanship is also being driven by the looming fiscal cliff now threatening Congress that will likely require major cuts to avoid.
One of the messages taken from the election is that people expect to get things done in Congress, he said, and one of the easier things to get done is the farm bill. In terms of the spectrum of what we have to do (to make cuts), its one of the least contentious issues. I think the $23 million in proposed cuts will be up to S25 to S27 million range; thats a significant cut to debt reduction
And if the bill isnt passed by the end of the year, it will mean more painful cuts to federal programs for farmers. Dairy farmers in the north country are already suffering from the discontinuation of the Milk Income Loss Contract program with the expiration of the bill, a federal safety net that reimbursed farmers when national milk prices dropped, said Steve Ammerman, manager of public affairs for the New York Farm Bureau. If the revamped farm bill is passed, farmers would have the option to join a new margin insurance program, which calculates reimbursements based on the gap between feed and milk costs.
If no action is taken programs will face additional cuts, he said. But it could be part of the savings used to address the fiscal cliff if they already have $20 to $30 million in cuts for deficit reduction. Were hopeful and optimistic something will be done.