Congress has been on holiday for the last couple of weeks but key members of the farm bill conference committee and their staffs have been working behind the scenes on a compromise farm bill proposal.

D.C. Watch: No holiday break for farm bill committeeSenate Agriculture Committee Chairperson Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has promised to unveil the framework for a new bill soon after Congress reconvenes.

The top four negotiators on the House-Senate Conference Committee have been working on a possible compromise, but there is grumbling from some of the other 37 members about being shut out of the process.

The comments suggest the compromise may face some significant opposition in full committee.

Congress has other pressing issues to deal with besides the farm bill.

The continuing resolution funding the government expires on Jan. 15, and Congress must act before then or the government will shut down again.

The staffs of the different appropriations committees have been working through the holidays trying to put together spending packages that fit into the overall budget approved by Congress in December. Congress will need to either pass this omnibus spending bill or approve another continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown.

 With elections looming this fall, no one wants that!

Some in Congress want to use savings from the farm bill to offset the cost of extending unemployment benefits that expired in December for some 1.3 million long-term unemployed. The big debate is over how to pay for another extension.

The Congressional Budget Office puts cost at $6.4 billion over 10 years.

We are also in the middle of the comment period for EPA’s proposed rule that would lower the biofuels mandate for 2014.

The comment period runs through Jan.  28, but EPA has already received more than 10,600 comments. To view or submit comments, visit www.regulations.gov and search under the docket number EPA-HQ-OAR-2013-0479.

Under the proposed rule, the amount of biofuels mandated would total 15.2 billion gallons - with slightly more than 13 billion gallons from corn-based ethanol. But if EPA drops its proposal under heavy opposition and takes no action, the mandate for biofuels use in 2014 would exceed 18 billion gallons.

There will likely be some important court rulings during 2014. Several rulings that were handed down in 2013 have been appealed. Here are the big ones for agriculture:

  • EPA’s ruling about limiting runoff of fertilizers and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay was upheld in 2013, but has been appealed.
  • In contrast EPA denied a petition to develop numeric limits for fertilizer runoff in the Mississippi River Basin, but a federal court has required EPA to determine if nutrient limitations are appropriate.
  • EPA’s proposed rule for the renewable fuels mandate has not been finalized yet, but it looks like the final rule may be challenged in court, especially if the proposed rule is upheld.
  • The Country of Origin Labeling law is under attack on several fronts. Supporters of COOL won the first round in federal court and that ruling has been appealed. In addition the law is being challenged at the World Trade Organization.

It is possible that tax refunds will be delayed this year unless Congress raises the debt ceiling in a timely manner.

 The limit will reset on Feb. 8, and the Treasury Department will need to meet government obligations without exceeding the current cap. However, keeping under the cap will be difficult since the government outlays are at their highest levels at that time of year because of income tax refunds.