The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

October 6, 2012

Experts: Bill delay no big deal

Staff and wire reports

— Oklahoma’s farms and ranches didn’t disappear when the 2008 farm bill expired at midnight Sept. 30.

Oklahoma agriculture experts agree Congress could wait until March to approve the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 without damaging American agriculture.

Senators and representatives left Washington, D.C., in September. They aren’t scheduled to return until after the Nov. 6 election. The House passed its version of the farm bill in June, but the House version has been stalled because leaders don’t have the votes to make larger cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he didn’t bring the farm bill up for a vote because he didn’t have the 218 votes to pass it.

“We’ve got people who believe there’s not enough reform in the farm bill that came out of committee. We’ve got others who believe there’s too much reform in the bill,” Boehner told The Associated Press recently.

The House Agriculture Committee approved the bill in July by a 35-11 vote, with chairman U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., praising the bill.

“This is a balanced, reform-minded, fiscally responsible bill that underscores our commitment to production agriculture and rural America, achieves real savings, and improves program efficiency,” Lucas said at the time of the bill’s passage out of committee.

During a visit to Enid in August, Lucas said the House Agriculture Committee is the least polarized of all House committees, despite the differences of some of the members.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said House Republicans had the votes to pass the bill, but plan to add it to talks between Congress and the White House about spending cuts and the nation’s $16 trillion national debt.

“Unfortunately, House Republicans left Washington without passing comprehensive, multi-year food, farm and jobs legislation, leaving thousands of farming families exposed,” Vilsack said. “U.S. agriculture is fighting to maintain the tremendous momentum it has built over the past three years, but with natural disasters and other external forces threatening livelihoods of our farmers and ranchers, certainty is more important than ever.”

Against the grain

Rhetoric from fiery presidential and congressional races might make Americans think it’s rare for a farm bill to lapse before Congress approves the next bill and the president makes it law.

Oklahoma State University assistant professor Jody Campiche said only two farm bills in the last 40 years have been enacted prior to the Sept. 30 deadline.

“It’s not uncommon for a farm bill to expire,” she said.

Campiche is an agriculture policy expert. She holds a doctorate from Texas A&M. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from OSU.

Only the 1973 and 1977 farm bills were approved before their predecessors lapsed, according to a July 25 Congressional Research Service report.

It’s also rare for Congress to extend provisions of a previous farm bill, Campiche said. Usually, Congress passes resolutions continuing the authority and providing money for mandatory programs.

The 2002 farm bill required five extensions after President George W. Bush twice vetoed the 2008 version, Campiche said.

A sure thing

Blayne Arthur, Oklahoma Department of Agriculture associate commissione, said the farm bill delay isn’t ideal, but it isn’t a critical situation, yet.

Campiche agreed, saying the 2008 farm bill applies to crops planted this year, but harvested in 2013.

Oklahoma’s producers are planting winter wheat now. The 2008 farm bill’s provisions would apply to this crop when it’s harvested next year.

“We’ve dealt with it (delays) before,” Arthur said.

The Senate and House versions of 2012 farm bill do away with the direct payments that put billions in the pockets of U.S. farmers whether or not they plant a crop. Subsidized crop insurance will protect producers from bad weather or a price trouble.

Oklahoma producers know this, Arthur said.

The switch didn’t draw much of a protest from farm groups. It does create concern, Arthur said.

“Producers don’t have a big (profit) margin,” Arthur said. “It’s a little challenge. They are looking at their numbers differently. It makes (crop) decisions more difficult.”

Passing fancy

A new farm bill will be approved, Campiche and Arthur said. The timing is up in the air.

It could win approval in the lame-duck session of Congress in November or December, but Campiche said Congress might wait until the start of 2013.

A delay into the new year comes with a new set of problems. Many of the 2008 farm bill programs would revert to 1949 permanent law. Market conditions were much different back then. Instead of direct payments, the government guaranteed a minimum price for the dominant crops of the day.

The bottom price for corn was $5.70 a bushel. Corn, today, sells for more than $7.50 a bushel. In this instance, price supports wouldn’t kick in. However, the wheat support price in 1949 was $13.13 a bushel. Wheat is trading at approximately $8.50 a bushel today. The government would be paying a lot of money to wheat producers under permanent law.

Of course, some crops, like soybeans, weren’t prevalent in 1949 and aren’t considered a program crop. All United States Department of Agriculture support would end under permanent law.

“It’s unlikely Congress will let that happen,” Campiche said.

Chris Day of the Stillwater NewsPress and staff writer Robert Barron contributed to this story.