Farm bill stalls in House, frustrating area farmers

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Election-year politics have stalled the farm bill and may leave some producers without a safety net.

Farmers are frustrated and filled with uncertainty as House leaders have yet to schedule a vote on the farm bill.

"The farm bill, for the first time since I've been in Congress, has become political this year and it's a big problem," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau.

Many of her Republican colleagues believe if they can win a majority in the Senate and elect a Republican president in November, the farm bill will look vastly different and could include more cuts to farm subsidies and nutrition programs than it does now, so they're putting the vote off until November, Emerson said. House members will leave Washington, D.C., on Friday as Congress begins a recess that will continue through Nov. 13.

"It is not going to look much different no matter who is in office because it's usually a regional crop and/or livestock related thing related to where you are in the country. What they don't understand is it is not a Republican verses Democratic thing," Emerson said.

There has been talk of an extension, but Emerson said she doesn't think this is likely to happen by Friday and even if it did the Senate is unlikely to act on it. The House passed a drought relief bill in August, but the Senate has refused to act on it.

Several farm bill programs expired at the end of last year due to budgetary issues including the livestock disaster assistance program, said Garrett Hawkins, director of national legislative programs at the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation.

Farmers were told these programs would be addressed before they lapsed and they were not, Hawkins said. Now many livestock producers affected by the drought are either struggling or selling off their cattle and going out of business.

The Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups say an extension of the current farm bill isn't good enough.

"Our message continues to be we want a farm bill before they leave to campaign," Hawkins said.

This year's extreme drought adds urgency to the farm bill, according to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri. The Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill in June.

"Missouri's farmers and ranchers are dealing with a once in a generation drought and they need the certainty of a Farm Bill right now -- not after November, not next year -- now. The Farm Bill that got broad bipartisan support in the Senate protects the jobs and livelihoods of our farmers and ranchers, and cuts the national deficit," McCaskill said in an emailed statement.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, said he believes drought relief for livestock producers should be done before the recess.

"I think it should have been done before we left here in the August for our time in the state," Blunt said. "I'd like for us to see a five-year farm bill; for us to walk away without sending the right message to farm families about farming this fall, this winter and next year is a bad thing," Blunt said.

The farm bill technically expires with the fiscal year Sept. 30, but commodity farmers won't feel the effect unless there is not a new farm bill by the time the first commodity is harvested in 2013.

However, various programs in the current bill, enacted in 2008, have different deadlines including the Milk Income Loss Contract program, a safety net for dairy farmers, which began providing a reduced level of coverage Sept. 1.

The MILC program, designed to offset low milk prices and high input costs, was the subject of a letter McCaskill sent Tuesday to House leaders asking them to find the resources to restore the MILC program to its previous coverage levels for the duration of any extension of current policy.

"We fear failure to maintain the program at its previous levels will saddle dairy farmers with significant risks as their feed prices continue to skyrocket," McCaskill wrote.

Emerson said she believes if a farm bill came to the floor, members of Congress could work through their differences to get it passed.

About 80 percent of farm bill spending will go to nutrition programs administered by the USDA including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. this has been a sticking point of some Republicans that has caused blockage of the bill.

"It meets a diverse group of needs and there are a lot of folks that have something at stake in getting the farm bill across the finish line," Hawkins said.

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

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