Congress will miss the farm bill deadline in the midst of a likely government shutdown
In the midst of a likely government shutdown, Congress is missing another big deadline — the farm bill.
The massive legislation passed roughly every five years includes funding for food assistance, commodity support, crop insurance and conservation programs.
As Congress appears likely to plow past the Sept. 30 deadline, agricultural policy experts and lawmakers say there shouldn’t be too much harm to critical programs, at least before the end of the year.
“It’s not the end of the world,” said Brad Lubben, an extension policy specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “But you can see it from there.”
Even without an immediate extension of the farm bill after Sept. 30, several programs are permanently authorized and will remain funded, including crop insurance.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides support to low income families, is reauthorized each year through appropriations. That could be a challenge for lawmakers this week as they deal with an imminent shutdown.
The chairs of both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees acknowledged last week that December will be the new target for passing the omnibus legislation that dictates agricultural, food and conservation spending in the U.S.
Missing the September deadline for the farm bill has become common practice for lawmakers in Washington D.C. Congress last passed the omnibus legislation, that’s debated and passed roughly every five years, on time in 2002.
Even though missing the September deadline has become common, missing the December deadline could be more costly.
“That's really the imminent deadline,” Lubben said.
However, Rep. Mark Alford, a Republican from Missouri and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said he expects Congress to pass a short-term extension possibly to the end of the year. He said that will give lawmakers enough time to write and debate the legislation.
“We have a lot of farmers and producers depending on the insurance and the safety net programs to continue operation,” Alford said.
Rep. Nikki Budzsinski, a Democrat from Illinois, also sits on the House Agriculture Committee and argues Congress shouldn’t need an extension. Lawmakers’ fight over funding the federal government has distracted from finishing the farm bill, she said.
“I'm very concerned that all of the energy that should be devoted toward getting a farm bill done — to support our farmers, to support our agricultural economy — the oxygen is being sucked out of the room because Republican leadership can't make a deal to keep our government open,” Budzinski said.
What happens after December?
Maybe the biggest and most immediate impact if lawmakers miss the December deadline will be noticed by milk consumers and producers — in what experts call the “dairy cliff.”
Without a new farm bill, policy would revert back to the language of the farm bills in the 1938 and 1949 bills. Those were passed without an expiration date — and are referred to as “permanent law” by policy experts.
That permanent law would more than double the cost of milk. Currently, the price of milk stands at $19.30 per 100 pounds. Under the old farm bill, the cost would skyrocket to $50.70, according to a Congressional Research Service report that details the farm bill’s expiration.
“We would go from not spending anything at all to suddenly the rules of the old farm bills would cause a tremendous increase in spending for agriculture, at least from the commodity side,” said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University professor of agricultural economics.
Like dairy, the price for wheat, cotton, rice and corn would also increase but by less drastic margins. The federal government would be stuck footing the bill — and everyday consumers would be left paying more too.
Those 20th century farm bills would also not support crops like soybeans, peanuts or sugar.
Back in 2014, lawmakers allowed permanent legislation to go into place — after failing to sign legislation until early February. At that point, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had not drawn up all the details to implement the permanent law.
A shutdown complicates the farm bill
Getting a farm bill done amid the looming government shutdown will be nearly impossible, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week.
“We’ll do everything we can to make sure this thing gets passed as quickly as it can,” Vilsack said. “But it’s pretty tough to do if there’s a shutdown. You can’t do it.”
When lawmakers finally get to the debate over the farm bill, some more conservative members of the Republican Party may center their attention on SNAP. As part of negotiations over the debt ceiling in May, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden reached an agreement to raise work requirements for eligible recipients.
“They're re bringing up work requirements, as if this conversation hasn't already been had and agreed to in a bipartisan way,” Rep. Budzinski said.
Rep. Mary Miller, a Republican from Illinois and member of the House Agriculture Committee and Freedom Caucus, has previously advocated for raising the threshold for SNAP work and age requirements.
“We’re on the verge of not being able to call it ‘the farm bill’ (because) 85% of the farm bill money is going to SNAP payments and food production,” she told farmers earlier this fall. “The producers are being left out, and we need to fight back and speak up about that.”
Hart of Iowa State said a government shutdown could also force agricultural markets to fly blind without USDA reports on commodity prices like corn, soybeans and beef — and eventually push prices down.
That’s happened to agriculture markets before during shutdowns in 2013, 2018 and 2019.
Now, Hart said, all farmers, ranchers and the American public can do is wait to see how agriculture will weather a shutdown and what will become of the farm bill.
“Something will be done. I have no doubt about that,” Hart said. “The question is what.”
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.
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