As Congress turns its attention to more pressing matters, debate on a bill to replace the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act is likely to be pushed back until at least next year.
Larry Combest, R-Tex., the chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, had planned to bring an updated farm bill up for a floor vote last week, before Congress schedule was thrown into chaos by the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Because of the changes in the legislative calendar, and the other bills that still needed completion, Mark K. Scanlan, the director of agricultural finance for the Independent Community Bankers of America, predicted that the final farm bill probably wont be completed until next year.
The 1996 bill is set to expire next year. Farmers and their lenders were dissatisfied with the results of that bill, which they said made farmers dependent on emergency appropriations instead of providing predictable government assistance.
In writing the next bill, Congress has tried to address those concerns. The Farm Security Act of 2001 would provide supplemental money to help farmers hurt by low crop prices, to buy surplus commodities to prop up prices, and for helping find foreign markets for U.S. crops. It would also provide money for conservation programs and vouchers for seniors to buy fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.
The bill has passed the House Agriculture Committee, and it is ready to be considered by the full house whenever it decides to take it up. The Senate has moved more slowly and does not yet have a bill.
The 2001 bill was already on shaky ground, because it would rely on the budget surplus that various government budget offices have said may no longer exist in the wake of this years tax cut. With the changing priorities brought on by recent events, the future of the bill has been put in doubt.
The National Farmers Union, which had 260 members from 24 states in Washington last week, suspended congressional visits they had planned and instead focused on getting their members home.
The farm bill was right in the middle of the eye of the storm until last Monday, said Tom Buis, vice president of governmental relations for the Farmers Union. Members were in the nations capital to lobby for the House farm bill, which they feared was in danger of failing in light of the predictions that the 2002 budget would tap into Social Security funds, he said.
Mr. Scanlan concurred with that assessment. Some people were suggesting maybe we should pass a one-year bill or a two-year bill.
With the timing, budget, and policy issues, the bill might not come until late next year, which might lead to a call for more emergency aid to farmers for the next two crop years, he said. The new bill is meant to lock in the financing projected under the current budget resolution for the next 10 years.
If they wait until late next year, [the farm bill] will likely apply to the following year and lead to more calls for farm aid, Mr. Scanlan said. Budget constraints could cause trouble for farm aid packages.