What now for the Farm Bill?

House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders developed a bipartisan, bicameral proposal for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that would save $23 billion.  However, the Joint Select Committee’s failure to reach a deal on an overall deficit reduction package effectively ends this effort.  We are pleased we were able to work in a bipartisan way with committee members and agriculture stakeholders to generate sound ideas to cut spending by tens of billions while maintaining key priorities to grow the country’s agriculture economy.  We will continue the process of reauthorizing the farm bill in the coming months, and will do so with the same bipartisan spirit that has historically defined the work of our committees.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Representative Frank Lucas (R-OK) November 21, 2011

With this statement the Chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees gave up on their quest to change and extend Farm Bill programs under the aegis of deficit-cutting legislation pursued by the so-called Super Committee.  Although it is possible that the compromise farm legislation crafted by Democratic and Republican leaders could be attached to another bill that must be passed before the end of this calendar year, it is more likely that it will provide the starting point for a more normal Farm Bill process in 2012.*

Senator Debbie Stabenow     Representative Frank Lucas
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Representative Frank Lucas (R-OK)

The failure of the Super Committee triggers a process called sequestration, automatic, across-the-board cuts to defense and discretionary programs totaling $1.2 trillion over ten years.  Sequestration would force cuts of about $16 billion to Farm Bill programs with none of them coming from SNAP (formerly food stamps).  The process would begin in January 2013, which gives Congress twelve months to come up with an alternative deficit-cutting and/or revenue-increasing solution.

Agriculture Committee members will face multiple challenges negotiating a Farm Bill in 2012.  Without a guaranteed “fix” to the budget problem they will be reluctant to pass a reduced-cost bill in 2012 if farm programs could then face further, automatic cuts in 2013.  Sequestration cuts would hit crop insurance hardest at a time when it is one of the most popular (and expensive) components of farm policy for many producers.


Next year is an election year, which further complicates the situation.  In addition to politicians’ reluctance to negotiate potentially unpopular policy compromises in the same year that they must face the voters, time will be short.  Most Capital Hill pundits agree that a Farm Bill would have to be finished by the Memorial Day break in order to pass before Members’ attention turns to the fall election.  Further, if Republicans believe that they will win a majority in the Senate they might want to slow the process down until they are in control.

The result could be that there are farm and food policy hearings in the House and the Senate Agriculture Committees next spring followed by passage of a one-year extension of the existing Farm Bill, punting the reauthorization process to the 113th Congress.

Caution: Farm Bill

A final possibility is that Congress will pass a deficit reduction bill next year that includes a new Farm Bill, much like the expedited process of this fall.  There are various draft options circulating on Capital Hill and it’s not impossible that one could be successful.

The message for advocates is the same whatever the schedule: Congress will be thinking about Farm Bill policy in 2012.  Continue to build a relationship with your Member of Congress.  Let them know what your organization is doing and the tangible successes you are having.  Provide clear information about exactly what federal programs you support, why you support them, how they can be improved, and exactly how the programs help your community.  The Farm Bill process could move quickly in 2012 so be ready to make your best case.

* For a thorough discussion of the various political possibilities for the next Farm Bill see the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.