The farm bill, the "fiscal cliff," taxes and spending represented key concerns from a panel of ag and rural policy stakeholders Wednesday at the Farm Foundation Forum on post-election issues.
Panelists discussed a wide range of topics focusing on agriculture, though the main attraction was the path of the farm bill. Panelists Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and Craig Jagger of Legis Consulting tackled the topic from timeline to bill contents.
Hoefner speculated that while many farm groups hold out hope for a lame duck bill, the timeline is tight. With a very limited number of working days before 2012 becomes history, Hoefner said the best solution is a five-year bill, though certain factors have to come together to make that happen.
"Let's be honest and clear that there are a maximum of four weeks available. To [pass a five-year bill] you would need a week for the House floor action, you'd need a good ten days if not two weeks for a very, very speedy farm bill conference and then another week to get the conference reports to the floor," Hoefner said. "Is it theoretically possible? Yes, it's theoretically possible. It would be one of the quickest farm bills in history, but it is conceivable."
Hoefner added that in the event of an extension, there are a few items that are on the "must-have" list, specifically development funding and a dairy program.
Development funding, which includes organic programs, rural job creation, energy programs and market development efforts, may be most at risk, he said. If an extension option is chosen, Congress will have to explicitly provide funding for such programs.
"These are programs that have had mandatory funding in at least one farm bill cycle and in some cases two farm bill cycles, so they are newer programs, smaller programs than the big-ticket items in the farm bill, but incredibly important," Hoefner said. "They're all in a very precarious position right now."
Though there is much speculation about which route the bill will take, Jagger said if no action is taken, the new Congress will have procedural responsibilities to handle before getting the bill back to its current state.
"When the 112th Congress ends, all the legislation that is pending there ends too, so if we don't get a farm fill through by 2013 it's not necessarily starting over, but they do have to go through everything and go thorough any procedural issues that get decided by the committee's leadership," Jagger noted.
Many groups have long voiced concern about the lack of action on the farm bill, some even joining the Farm Bill Now coalition, urging the House to bring the bill to the floor. Some have even speculated that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program is the hang-up for many legislators.
Hoefner noted that the apprehension regarding SNAP funding seems to be centered on a few House Republicans. There have also been rumblings of moving SNAP funding into a block grant system, which Hoefner said would eventually turn SNAP into a cyclical program that doesn't "ebb and flow" with the state of the economy.
Though some believe SNAP spending is increasing at the expense of farm programs, Hoefner says it doesn't.
"There's an assumption, I think, amongst people who promote separating SNAP from the farm bill – that somehow that's going to make the farm part of the farm bill easier to pass. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth, in fact, quite the opposite. I think we'd be heading towards the end of farm bills as we know them if we went down that road."
Overall, funding and tax concerns have generated a considerable amount of chatter from many ag stakeholders. The "fiscal cliff" – a term used to describe the expiring tax and spending cuts that take effect in January – has been increasingly lumped into farm bill discussion.
"Many people think the only way we can get a farm bill is if it is a budget offset for fiscal cliff costs," Jagger notes, but "we still don't know how much deficit reduction will be required."
Tax issues this election have also played a key part in the overall view of the farm bill, Jagger says, because estate and income taxes will see huge changes next year, playing into the budgets of producers themselves.
Despite the ongoing speculation about the path of the farm bill, the range of factors involved make it nearly impossible to determine a final outcome, Jagger notes, "there's just so much uncertainty here."