Editor's note: The following note was written by Christine Souza, an assistant editor of Ag Alert. Ag Alert is the weekly newspaper for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
As Congress reconvened for a post-election, "lame-duck" session, farmers and ranchers are urging their representatives to work together to address pressing issues facing agriculture.
Rayne Pegg, manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division, said it is vital for Congress to resolve issues such as the farm bill and the combination of scheduled tax increases and budget cuts that has come to be known as the "fiscal cliff."
American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman also emphasized the importance of getting the work done before the end of the year.
"Farmers and ranchers, like all Americans, have a list of issues that they are relying on the administration and Congress to address. But we cannot wait until 2013 for the action to start," Stallman said. "Serious work on the farm bill, the fiscal cliff and critical tax policy fixes all must start during the lame-duck session."
The fiscal cliff of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts and the end of Bush-era tax rates that become effective on Jan. 1 pose the most pressing challenges for congressional leaders and the Obama administration.
Josh Rolph of the CFBF Federal Policy Division noted that in President Obama's first address following re-election, he said in clear terms that the wealthiest Americans would need to pay "a little more in taxes." Although House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had previously indicated he was willing to negotiate with the president, raising taxes appears not to be an option for Republicans. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., clearly made that point in a statement, Rolph said.
"One thing seems sure: There will be a fight during the lame-duck session between a president who says he now has a mandate to raise taxes on the most wealthy, and congressional Republicans who oppose any tax hikes," said Rolph, who is the CFBF director of international trade, farm policy, taxation and plant health. "If there is a stalemate, taxes will go up for everyone beginning in January."
Unless Congress acts before the end of the year, for example, the exemption level on federal estate taxes will drop from the current $5 million to $1 million, and the tax rate will increase to 55 percent.
Farm Bureau will urge the lame-duck Congress to extend current tax policies at least temporarily, Rolph said, and will seek broader tax reform in the next Congress.
"With our high land values in California, it's easy for a farmer to be hurt by the lower exemption thresholds and be forced to sell portions of the farm to pay the estate tax bill," Rolph said. "Keeping the family farm in the family is critical to sustaining agriculture, and reforming the estate tax is critical to sustaining family farms."
Before Congress adjourns its lame-duck session, agricultural groups want representatives to tackle passage of a 2012 Farm Bill. Farm Bureau and many other agricultural groups urge passage of a five-year bill, not a quick fix such as extension of the previous bill, Pegg said.
"There is no reason to extend the 2008 Farm Bill, even temporarily," she said. "Both the House and Senate made great progress on a new farm bill, and that progress will be lost if a five-year bill isn't passed this year."
She said farmers and ranchers who rely on disaster assistance, insurance, marketing and research programs will be harmed if Congress fails to act, a sentiment also voiced by House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn. Peterson urged House Republican leaders last week to bring the bipartisan Agriculture Committee bill to the floor for a vote this week.
"I'm optimistic that, if given the chance, we have the votes to pass a five-year farm bill. There is no good reason not to vote on the bill," Peterson said. "This will give us the time we need to work out our differences with the Senate and get a new five-year farm bill signed into law by the end of the year."
The previous farm bill expired on Sept. 30. Covering research, specialty crop programs, dairy assistance, trade and conservation programs, the farm bill funds critical programs such as nutrition assistance or food stamps, technical assistance for farmers and ranchers, invasive-species prevention and management, and initiatives that support food production and environmental conservation.
A continuing resolution passed by Congress extended funding for some critical programs through March. Even so, more than 30 programs have been affected by the bill's expiration, including the Market Access Program, the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative and disaster assistance.
Those programs were the focus of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, which met in Sacramento last week to discuss impacts of the expiring farm bill programs. State Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said she remains hopeful that Congress will pass a federal farm bill after it reconvenes this week, but added, "We must move forward with the understanding that with the current expiration of some farm bill programs, dramatic long-term impacts will be felt by California's farmers and ranchers."
With Congress back in Washington, Farm Bureau's Pegg said now is the time for farmers and ranchers to contact their representatives about the importance of both the farm bill and of estate tax reform.
"Sharing your personal experience is key to making sure Congress understands how its inaction would hurt family farms and ranches and the rural economy throughout California," Pegg said.