A historic drought gripping much of the country increased pressure on Congress to act on the farm bill in late July, but just what action Congress could agree to take before November elections is uncertain.
The worsening drought upped the ante for Congressional action, however, with many media outlets highlighting the plight of drought-stricken growers and ranchers.
Political observers said House Republican leadership is leaning toward a drought relief bill coupled with a one-year extension in the farm bill, but Democrat opposition to the plan could make it impossible to find the 218 votes to pass legislation like that.
“The scenarios are whether they do a drought bill, or do they attach a one-year extension (of the farm bill) to the drought bill,” said Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh Produce Association. “The challenge is I don’t think they are going to get any Democrats (to support a one-year extension.)”
Also unknown is how the Senate would react to an one-year extension, Guenther said.
Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Washington, D.C., said House Republican leadership appears to want a one-year farm bill extension under the guise of a disaster bill.
“I don’t see how that is going to work,” he said.
Hoefner said Tea Party Republicans and all Democrats may vote against a one-year extension of the farm bill.
If the current farm bill is extended by a year, Guenther said some specialty crop programs could suffer. In particular, Guenther said the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, the Clean Plant Network would lose funding.
Of that group, the Specialty Crop Research Initiative is most important to the industry and is currently funded at $50 million per year, Guenther said.
On the other hand, key programs such as the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program would not lose funding with a one-year extension, Guenther said.
If Congress resorts to a one-year extension, the next Congress would have to start the process of writing the legislation all over again.
The situation could become even more complicated if Republicans gain control of the Senate from the Democrats. That would mean a reshuffling of leadership on the Senate Agriculture Committee, where current chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has been an advocate for the specialty crop industry.
“With all the looming budget issues and tax issues and sequestration going on next year, it is not a good environment to be writing a farm bill,” Guenther said. “No matter who is in control, it doesn’t matter who wins the election in November.”
Hoefner said the most likely scenario may be that House Republicans may retreat on their plan for a one-year extension and instead perhaps in September pass a short-term extension and hope to pass a farm bill in the lame duck session after the election.
“They could go done in history as the first Congress in history that didn’t pass a farm bill and had to kick it into a brand new Congress and have to start all over again,” Hoefner said.