U.S. sets new deadline for delayed farm bill

Funding shortfall Last minute extension of existing law draws criticism from farm groups

The U.S. Congress has given itself a new deadline of Sept. 30 to complete an overdue five-year, $500 billion farm bill that withered in election-year acrimony in 2012.

Congress decided in the frantic late December haggling to avoid the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts known as the “fiscal cliff” to extend provisions in the old farm bill for a year rather than pass a temporary fix promoted by some legislators.

As the year-end deadline drew closer, farm state lawmakers drafted a one-year proposal that would have included disaster relief money for livestock producers hurt by drought.

It also would have created a dairy subsidy program to compensate farmers when feed costs are high and milk prices are low.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell nixed the proposal during the final hours of fiscal cliff talks, a Senate aide said.

Dairy processors said the proposed new dairy plan would have interfered too much with the market.

Instead, the old law was extended, which averted a steep increase in milk prices, sometimes called the “dairy cliff.” Without the fix, the farm law would have expired and dairy subsidies would have reverted to 1949 levels, meaning retail milk prices could have doubled to $7 a gallon in coming weeks or months.

However, three dozen programs in the old farm bill have no money left, including disaster relief and biofuel development as well as a soil conservation program and rural economic development and agricultural research programs.

Some farm groups reacted angrily, including the U.S. National Farmers Union, the second largest general farm group in the country.

“Once again, Congress has left rural America out in the cold,” said NFU president Roger Johnson.

“An extension represents a short sighted, temporary fix that ultimately provides inadequate solutions that will leave our farmers and ranchers crippled by uncertainty.”

The agriculture committees of the lower House of Representatives and upper Senate drafted new farm bills in 2012 but were unable to come up with a version both houses could accept.

The House version proposed the deepest cuts in a generation for food stamps for the poor, but fiscal conservatives want more cuts in food stamps as well as farm subsidies.

The bills produced by the two agriculture committees would have cut $23 to $35 billion, but those efforts died with the closing of the session.

The new session with a new Congress with legislators elected in the November election began Jan. 3.

It was the first time that Congress began work on a farm bill in one session and had to refile it in the new session.

The new effort to draft a farm bill will take place in an environment where lawmakers will have an even greater focus on spending cuts.

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