One of the casualties of the do-little 113th Congress will be the 2013 farm bill, which is two years overdue.
Without action, parts of the law will revert to the original 1938 and 1949 versions, resulting in milk prices as high as $7 a gallon.
A conference committee has been trying to work out a compromise between a Senate farm bill and what the House passed in two bills. Reports indicate the committee is getting nowhere, though certainly not fast. Talks bogged down before Congress’ Thanksgiving recess, leaving only December to get something done.
That’s not even as much time as it appears. Ed O’Keefe, who covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post, reported Monday that the House and Senate calendars show only five days in which both bodies will be in Washington at the same time. The House of Representatives has only nine days on its "month," ending Dec. 13, and the Senate will be in town only from Dec. 9-20.
Furthermore, the to-do list for December includes some major legislation like a budget agreement which, if left undone, could result in another government shutdown in January.
Our lawmakers appear to be intent on establishing an all-time record for lack of accomplishment. The Post says that congressional records show fewer than 60 public laws enacted so far this year. The lowest production since World War II was in 1995, when a new Republican majority met head-on with the Clinton administration and the result was that only 88 laws were enacted.
No legislation is more important to rural states like Arkansas than the farm bill, and the 41-member conference committee includes 1st District Congressman Rick Crawford and U.S. Sen. John Boozman, both Republicans. Crawford especially is on the spot, not only because his district depends heavily on agriculture but also because the real hang-up has been in the House and with representatives on whose side he usually votes.
Indeed, when the House adjourned in early August without passing a farm bill, Crawford said: "The agricultural industry in my district desperately needs a farm bill, and the clock is ticking as we move toward Sept. 30 when current law expires. I do not believe it is responsible to leave Washington and leave farmers hanging in the balance …"
He was right then, and now prospects for a bill by the end of the year look no better.
The chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said as he left for the Thanksgiving recess that it would be "very challenging" to get a final agreement on the House floor by Dec. 13.
It doesn’t even seem to be a high priority for him. The front page of his official House website includes a huge box inviting constituents to "Share Your Obamacare Story" and three other links to health care issues, but not a single reference among nine news releases issued since Aug. 2 on the farm bill.
Nothing on the site mentions a farm bill since March 2012.
The real sticking point between the House and Senate is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food assistance for the poor. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that nearly 48 million people receive SNAP benefits, and 72 percent of those people are in families with children. In Arkansas the percentage is even higher: Of 509,000 participants (1 or every 6 people), 76 percent are in families with children; nearly half are children.
The nutrition program, formerly known as food stamps, has been tied to the farm bill since 1964, when Congress passed a combination bill as a compromise. The idea was to get urban lawmakers to vote for farm legislation and rural legislators to support food stamps, which also indirectly benefit farmers.
Republicans are concerned about the growth of SNAP, which more than doubled between 2007-12, partly because of high unemployment.
In June, the Senate passed a farm bill on a bipartisan vote of 66-27, with both Arkansas senators in favor. It would cut SNAP by $4.1 billion over 10 years and would end direct payments to farmers, thus reducing the federal deficit by $23 billion.
However, a House version of that bill failed by a 195-234 vote, in large part because many Democrats objected to the cut in SNAP benefits. GOP leaders then came back with a farm bill without SNAP and a separate SNAP bill that would cut benefits by $39 billion over 10 years. Each was passed narrowly with all Democrats and a few Republicans opposing.
Here we are, more than two months later, still with a stalemate.
If this were just about money, the House majority could easily find savings of $39 billion over 10 years in military spending, which at $650 billion per year is six times more than China spends, 11 times more than Russia spends. If it were just about welfare, the House majority could surely pare $3.9 billion from our annual $50 billion budget for economic and military assistance to foreign nations, none of whom pay U.S. taxes.
Our lawmakers should stay in Washington until they can pass a farm bill.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.