Can the least-productive Congress in a generation pass a farm bill during the short lame-duck session this year? That was one of the questions discussed during a Farm Foundation Forum Wednesday in Washington, D.C., as a group of farm-policy experts addressed post-election politics related to agriculture.
Leading off the panel discussion was Craig Jagger of Legis Consulting, who spent 11 years as chief economist for the U.S. House Agriculture Committee under both Republican and Democratic majorities. Jagger noted that the current 112th Congress, through August, had passed 173 public laws, compared with 906 for the assembly during 1947 and 1948 that President Harry Truman described as the “do-nothing Congress.”
And yet the 112th Congress faces some important tasks in the remaining weeks of 2012, most notably reaching a budget agreement to avoid the “fiscal cliff” of automatic spending cuts and tax increases that will otherwise take effect after January 1. A list of Bush-era tax cuts also will expire at the end of the year, and the estate tax would return to pre-2001 levels, with the exemption for individuals dropping from $5 million to $1 million and the rate increasing from 35 percent to 55 percent.
Passage of a new Farm Bill could provide some of the spending cuts needed to avoid the fiscal cliff while providing secure funding for critical farm programs. Jagger noted that the House version, which the Agriculture Committee passed but never reached the floor for a full vote, would save $35.1 billion from the federal budget. The Senate version, which passed a full Senate vote, would cut $23.6 billion. The biggest differences between the two, he says, relate to funding for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps), and for Title 1 commodity programs. The difference in SNAP funding amounts to $12 billion, with the House bill favoring deeper cuts.
If the 112th Congress does not pass a farm bill, the responsibility passes to the 113th, Jagger notes. This does not necessarily mean starting over, but the bills would need to be re-introduced and could be modified significantly in the new House and Senate committees.
Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said passage of a farm bill during the lame-duck session is possible, but would require some fast action. The bill likely will take at least a week to reach the House floor for a vote. If the House passes their version, the two chambers of Congress would need at least a week, probably at least two weeks, to resolve differences in conference. At least one more week would be needed for a final vote. With just over six weeks left in the year, including the holidays, passage seems unlikely.
Prior to introducing the panelists, Farm Forum president Neil Conklin briefly addressed the issue of immigration reform. In a Farm Forum stakeholders meeting on immigration issues in July, he says, there was general consensus that current guest-worker programs are not working for either workers or employers. At that time though, participants saw little chance of comprehensive immigration reform in the near future. Conklin noted though, that immigration reform could become more likely following the 2012 election, as Republicans have openly acknowledged a need to reconnect with minority voters.
During the question and answer session, former U.S. Representative Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas) served as moderator. In his opening comments, Stenholm, who served six years as ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, said the current ag committees in the House and Senate are a last preserve of bipartisanship in Congress. Unfortunately, that spirit of compromise disappears when legislation moves from the committees to the general assemblies. He encouraged the audience to contact their Congressional representatives and tell them to get busy, put the nation’s business ahead of party politics and resolve issues such as the budget and farm bill.
A webcast of the forum is available on the Farm Foundation website.