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Will Congress Complete a New Farm Bill in 2012?

This has been a strange Farm Bill process so far, and it may get stranger before this key piece of legislation is complete. Last fall, the Agriculture Committee leadership in Congress worked behind closed doors to craft a 2011 Farm Bill with $23 billion in net cuts requested by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (the “Super Committee”). But this unusual process was scrapped in November when the Super Committee process collapsed.

Building on their proposal from last year, the Senate Agriculture Committee released a new draft of the 2012 Farm Bill on April 20. Chairwoman Stabenow (D-MI) says that the bill still achieves $23 billion in savings. Over the next few weeks, the Agriculture Committee members will mark up and then vote on the bill. During that time, members can raise and vote on amendments to the mark, thereby changing it. Once it is passed by the Agriculture Committee, the bill will be sent to the Senate floor for consideration. Chairwoman Stabenow is aiming to have this done before Memorial Day.

While the Senate is moving forward with producing a Farm Bill, the situation is more complicated in the House.

In its fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget resolution, the House Budget Committee directed the House Agriculture Committee to cut $33.2 billion over ten years from the programs under the Agriculture Committee’s jurisdiction. Before they could focus attention on a Farm Bill, the Agriculture Committee, on April 18, passed a budget reconciliation bill on a partisan vote that proposes to cut $33.2 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over ten years. This reconciliation bill will be joined with those of six other Committees into a unified package that will go to the House floor in the coming weeks. The purpose of the cuts to SNAP, Medicaid, social service block grants and other anti-poverty programs is to substitute them for automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget that otherwise kick in next January, cuts that were agreed to as part of last year’s Budget Control Act.

According to reports from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), the budget reconciliation bill is not expected to become law, as the Senate has made it clear they will not take up budget reconciliation bills from the House. Thus it is being treated by some Agriculture Committee members as something of a paper exercise.

According to Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), “This is not the farm bill; this is a process mandated upon us by the Budget Committee.” He noted that the reconciliation bill is highly unlikely to become law. Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) took his commentary a step further, stating, “I would contend this entire process is a waste of time. It doesn’t mean anything.”

With this exercise out of the way, the House Agriculture Committee seems set to begin work on a 2012 Farm Bill. Prior to the budget reconciliation action, Chairman Lucas announced a set of eight House Farm Bill hearings planned for April 25 through May 18.

For more in-depth information on the Farm Bill process, see the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s reporting and analysis.

If you want to take action, sign onto NSAC’s 2012 Farm Bill platform.