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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published October 04 2013

Next federal fiscal crisis could help stalled farm bill

ST. PAUL – The current federal government shutdown overshadowed the end of many federal farm laws Tuesday, but the next federal fiscal crisis could lead to a stalled farm bill’s resurrection.

At least that is the hope of many from farm country who see $24 billion in savings contained in the farm bill as part of the answer to continual federal money woes.

The shutdown came about because Congress could not pass a budget by its Oct. 1 deadline. Next up is the mid-October problem of the country hitting the maximum amount allowed for debt, meaning the federal government would need to stop borrowing money or chop programs.

“This is the pitch I am working with everybody I can: Government funding is now getting tied to the debt ceiling,” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said. “To get a debt-ceiling agreement, we are going to have to find some savings and reforms.”

As Congress and President Barack Obama look to solve budget problems, those from heavy farm areas increasingly are playing up the chance to piggyback the farm bill on the debt situation since the proposals save money.

On the other hand, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said that if the farm bill is linked to broader budget talks, congressional leadership could make most farm bill decisions instead of those on agriculture committees. “That is not a good situation.”

Agriculture leaders and politicians said they have heard of relatively few problems in the first days without many of the farm laws. But after Jan. 1, milk prices could soar and lack of a farm bill will make planning difficult for the country’s farmers and ranchers.

“A farm bill is a lot like the government shutdown, a lot of people don’t realize how many things government does...” Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said. “They don’t realize how much government does until we don’t have them.”

Among items in federal law that expired are programs to help beginning farmers and ranchers, a variety of renewable energy support programs and agriculture disaster relief programs. Also missing from federal law now are farm-related research grants, conservation programs, rural development aid and rural hospital assistance.

Some programs continue even without a new farm bill, although the shutdown may affect them.

Crop insurance is in a law that remains on the books. So is the food stamp program, which usually is tied to farm programs so the bill receives both rural and urban support.

Ironically, the failure to pass a farm bill would preserve the full food stamp funding that Tea Party and other conservative Republicans oppose.

“House Republicans, in my opinion, have missed an opportunity to do true reform,” said Peterson, the top Agriculture Committee Democrat.

Democrats say the small right wing of the GOP is making decisions to cut or eliminate farm programs.

“I don’t understand why 9 percent of the people can control the speaker,” Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson said.

It appears House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is prepared to name farm bill negotiators in the next few days. Hoeven, a Senate negotiator, said he talked to Boehner and expects him to pick negotiators from the House Agriculture Committee, not from the far right. That would be a good sign for the farm bill’s completion.

Farm negotiators say it is important to resolve House-Senate difference quickly so the bill can be on the table for the wider financial discussion.

“If you are not on the table, you are on the menu in Washington,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., another Senate negotiator.

When Jan. 1 arrives, a 1949 law kicks in that will force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy milk products to raise prices, Collin Peterson said.

The 1949 law requires the USDA to double the price paid to dairy farmers. Peterson said he expects the government to buy enough cheese and powdered milk to drive up milk prices, but he does not expect prices to double at the store.

Klobuchar said that going back to 1949 law would mean soybean and sugar beet producers would not have protection they gained since it passed.

Farmers are frustrated with Congress.

Doug Peterson said Farmers Union members think Congress should act “and probably be able to do more than one thing at a time.”

Jan. 1 is the real farm bill deadline, Paap said, if Congress pays attention to such things. “I think a lot of people have come to understand that when the government sets deadlines, it is for people who are not government.”

Farmers need to be involved in the farm bill debate, Doug Peterson said, even though they are busy harvesting crops. “I think you have to keep the pressure on Congress. It is that simple.”

Added Collin Peterson, who has worked on the farm bill for a long time: “My message to farmers is what Boehner keeps giving me, ‘Be patient.’ That is directly from the speaker. I said, ‘I have been patient, John, for about a year.’ ”