Farm bill

A conference committee has made progress on an updated farm bill, but it won't be voted on by Congress in 2013.

Billings Gazette staff

Better make that the 2014 farm bill.

The 2013 farm bill will wait until January for passage, again with the threat of higher milk prices and a return to 1940s farm policy looming.

The bill is occasionally referred to as a “jobs bill” for Montana, where agriculture is the state’s single largest economic sector.

“Really, the final package is something that we’ve had a hand in,” said Lola Raska, Montana Grain Growers executive vice president.

Montana’s grain lobby began pushing for favorable crop insurance terms two years ago as Congress tried to hammer out a bill in budget-cutting talks sparked by a midsummer standoff over the federal debt limit.

That effort stalled and followed by the 2012 farm bill, House Republican leaders wouldn’t bring to a vote in the middle of an election year. Versions of a 2013 farm bill passed the House and Senate this year, but were dramatically different on cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formally known as food stamps. The Democratically controlled Senate proposed cuts of $4 billion to SNAP. The Republican-led House proposed cuts of $42 billion.

Both Senate and House farm bill versions would set spending at $900 billion over 10 years.

However, in the days leading up to Christmas break, lawmakers tasked with reconciling the two farm bills began hinting that SNAP cuts would be more in line with Senate preferences.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, a conference committee member, told The Gazette he expects the farm bill to pass in January without another extension. The Senate has passed bipartisan versions of the farm bill two years in a row, which should have been enough.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a Farm Bill signed into law by now,” Baucus said

“That said, the conference committee is very close to an agreement, and I’m optimistic we will have a good deal for Montana in January. Montana jobs are counting on Congress to get the Farm Bill done and I won’t settle for anything less than the long-term bill Montana farmers and ranchers deserve.”

Last week, the House passed an extension to January’s end for the current farm bill, now a year beyond its original expiration date. The extension would allow farm bill conferees to continue working without hitting the “dairy cliff,” a date in mid-January where federal dairy subsidies expire and milk prices are expected to double as a result.

The backstop for the current farm bill is a return to 1949 agriculture policy, in which the federal government set market prices, a condition to which agribusiness doesn’t want to return.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., balked at an extension, saying a farm bill is more likely to pass if there was pressure to do so.

For Montana farmers, a key point in the bill were farm-level triggers for crop-loss compensation. Lawmakers from smaller states had pushed for holding off on crop-loss compensation unless damage reached a high level across an entire county. But in large western states, where counties can stretch 50 to 100 miles, farm groups argued that countywide triggers would be nearly impossible to meet in cases of isolated weather disasters.

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