Old farm bill extended as special interests worry anew about future

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As part of the fiscal cliff package that passed earlier this week, Congress and the White House cobbled together an extension of the nation’s massive farm bill that keeps many — but not all — of the country’s agricultural and food programs sputtering along until September.

But just about everyone hates it. That includes farmers, produce trade organizations, groups that address hunger, dairy farmers, fiscal hawks and environmentalists — all have concerns with the way the bill was shoved awkwardly into the overall fiscal cliff compromise.

The Center for Rural Affairs, based in Nebraska, called it “a disaster.” The extension “slashes investment in the future of small rural communities and family farmers and ranching,” warned Chuck Hassebrook, the center’s executive director.

The compromise package merely extended the old farm bill until September and didn’t take into account some of the new work done this summer on a new five-year bill. It did nothing for innovation in agriculture, or to address systemic problems in the dairy industry or crop subsidies, said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. Both were addressed — if imperfectly — in the bills that both the House and the Senate worked on in 2012. Although the Senate passed a version of the farm bill last year, the House version never got to a floor vote.

“We had the bill and the agreement but what American agriculture got was more of the same,” Costa said.

There was a fix for milk, which could have seen a price spike for many Americans when the law reverted to a 1949-era provision on milk prices. But the compromise failed to take into account reforms that some dairy interest groups had sought in the new farm bill. They include replacing old price-support programs for milk with an insurance program to protect farmers against low milk prices and high feed costs.

The bill also neglected to include disaster assistance in a year of drought, said Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. The compromise lacked continued funding for some innovative programs his group supports, such as promoting farmers markets, assisting new and minority farmers, and research into specialty crops and organic crops, he said.

And it will all have to be renegotiated in the coming months, before the farm bill expires again.

That could prove troublesome now in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans were able to pass a contentious yet bipartisan version of the farm bill. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi takes the place of Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts as the top Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee. Cochran is expected to be more protective toward crops grown in the South, such as rice and peanuts, setting up a fight over subsidies.

“It’s not like they can bring the same bill back and ram it through the Senate again,” Hoefner said. “That will take some time to work out.”

The top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, warned Friday in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that he saw little reason to work on a new version of the farm bill unless he could get a commitment it would actually come to the House floor for a vote.

“I see no reason why the House Agriculture Committee should undertake the fool’s errand to craft another long-term farm bill if the Republican leadership refuses to give any assurances that our bipartisan work will be considered,” Peterson wrote. “You and your leadership team seem very content with simply extending the 2008 Farm Bill year after year without making any effort at reform, achieving savings and efficiencies, or improving the farm safety net for rural America.”

There’s some irony in what happened, said Chris Galen, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation. Both the House and the Senate worked on versions of a farm bill that reduced spending on subsidies and even spending on food stamps. But the extension in the fiscal cliff compromise failed to take those reforms into account.

“We have a bill that saves money,” Galen said. “It’s a bill that most of the major farm groups and hunger groups have agreed to. Now some people will say that doesn’t save enough money. But at the end of the day, the choice is: Do we keep the status quo for another year, and continue spending at the current rate, or do we pass a bill that reforms these programs — including dairy and not just dairy — that cuts spending? That’ll become the choice.”

The farm bill extension was part of an overall package that extends permanently most of the Bush-era tax cuts. They expire — and taxes increase — on individuals who make more than $400,000 and families that make more than $450,000. Individuals earning more than $250,000 and couples earning more than $300,000 will still be taxed at higher rates because the value of some of their exemptions and itemized deductions would be phased out.

Paychecks shrink for all working Americans under the legislation, which President Barack Obama signed into law this week. A temporary cut in the payroll tax, enacted in 2011 to boost the economy, is ending.