Farm bill extension evidence of lost clout
WASHINGTON (AP) — A patchwork extension of federal farm programs passed as part of a larger "fiscal cliff" bill keeps the price of milk from rising but doesn't include many of the goodies that farm-state lawmakers are used to getting for their rural districts.
House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders who spent more than a year working on a half-trillion-dollar, five-year farm bill that would keep subsidies flowing had to accept in the final hours a slimmed-down, nine-month extension of 2008 law with few extras for anyone.
With the new Congress opening Thursday, they'll have to start the farm bill process over again, most likely with even less money for agriculture programs this year and the recognition that farm interests have lost some of the political clout they once held.
"I think there's a lot of hurt feelings, that all of this time and energy was put into it and you've got nothing to show for it," said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said it even more bluntly on the Senate floor just after she learned that the bare-bones extension would be part of the fiscal cliff deal.
"There is no way to explain this," she said angrily as the deal came together New Year's Eve. "None. There is absolutely no way to explain this other than agriculture is just not a priority."
After Congress failed to pass a farm bill earlier last year, the legislation became tangled in the end-of-the-year fiscal cliff talks as dairy subsidies were set to expire Jan. 1 and send the price of milk to $6 or $7 a gallon, double current prices. The White House and congressional leaders negotiating the fiscal cliff had agreed that the bill would somehow have to avert that "dairy cliff," but it was uncertain how.
Hoping to salvage some of their work, Stabenow and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., crafted a last-minute extension of 2008 farm law to add to the fiscal cliff package, including help for their own state interests: fruit and vegetable growers plentiful in Michigan, and more than $600 million in emergency money for livestock producers who were affected by drought, a priority for Lucas. In addition to averting the milk price spike, their bill also contained an overhaul of dairy programs, a priority for House Agriculture's top Democrat, Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
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