Delays over the proposed farm bill could cause even more federal funding cuts in the agricultural sector.
After a summer break, members of the U.S. Congress returned to Washington, D.C., in mid-September with a hefty stack of issues to address including the languishing farm bill. But with escalating international issues and looming deadlines related to the deficit, it appears the comprehensive document that dictates funding and operations for everything from disaster relief and crop insurance to nutrition programs and agricultural job initiatives will once again be put on the back burner. The inability of lawmakers to find common ground on the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013 is disappointing and frustrating to those involved in agriculture, including the seed industry.
Debate Over Cuts Slows Progress
In late 2012, Congress failed to reauthorize a new farm bill and this past January it opted to tag a nine-month extension onto the existing law, called the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. That extension was set to expire on Sept. 30.
In the meantime, both Houses of Congress have taken divergent roads. The Democratic-controlled Senate easily passed its version of the farm bill in May but the Republican-led House voted down a comprehensive package in June, choosing to separate the farm and nutrition programs and only vote on and pass the farm portion in July.
“There is a lot of uncertainty and frustration about the farm bill as the discussions and negotiations have literally dragged on for years. Although any impact on the seed industry will not be felt immediately when the bill expires on Sept. 30, the longer the bill takes to be finalized, the more likely we are to face the very real prospect of there being less money available for the overall bill. This could impact, not just the nutrition and commodity programs, but also the less well-known parts of the bill like the conservation, research and trade promotion programs,” says Jane DeMarchi, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for the American Seed Trade Association.
Jane DeMarchi says ongoing discussions about the farm bill have caused plenty of uncertainty and frustration.
Both versions already call for significant spending cuts. That’s alluded to in the use of “reform” in the bill’s official title. As a result of the House’s 2014 budget, legislators were tasked with finding $31 billion worth of cuts during the next 10 years in the commodity and conservation titles plus $130 billion in the nutrition title. The Senate was asked to identify a total of $23 billion worth of savings.
At the moment, a debate over just how deep proposed cuts to the food stamp program should be is what’s reportedly preventing the House of Representatives from completing its final version of the bill. At the time of writing, a vote on the food stamp cuts was scheduled for the third week of September. If that proposal is approved, a joint conference committee would then need to meet and reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions before sending the final bill to President Obama for his signature.
What happens if that isn’t accomplished soon? United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has warned a trade agreement with Brazil could be in peril as of Oct. 1. That agreement, which stems from a cotton dispute, has protected the United States from paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in tariff penalties every year. Other provisions, like the dairy supports program, wouldn’t dissolve until the end of the calendar year.
Stakeholders Can’t Afford to be Quiet
Although the clock is ticking, DeMarchi says the industry is buoyed by signs that House leaders want to move forward. “There are still many variables to be worked out between the House and Senate, but ultimately we know that the leadership and members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have the best interests of agriculture in mind,” she says.
Still, it’s crucial that stakeholders continue to communicate with their elected leaders and push for action. “We are urging everyone to weigh in with members of Congress and ask for a five-year bill that is good for all crops and all parts of the country. All parts of agriculture, including the seed industry, can’t afford to be quiet,” DeMarchi adds.
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