Farm bill: What next?

July 17, 2013
Contact Information:

Mary Hightower, Communications Specialist,
Cooperative Extension Service
501-671-2126 /

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The battle over a new farm bill could take Congress to some unusual procedural places, Harrison Pittman, director of the National Agricultural Law Center, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said Tuesday.

In order for a bill to become law, both chambers must first enact the same legislation. Once that’s done, the legislation goes on to the president to sign into law.

If the House and Senate pass different versions of the legislation, such as the current competing versions of the farm bill, there are two basic paths forward to resolve the differences – one is through a conference committee or by relying on amendments between the House and Senate.

Choppy waters

“In general, resolving legislative differences on any legislation is challenging, and sometimes complicated. The current farm bill process is particularly complex – a little different than normal, to say the least,” he said.

“By not including a nutrition title in the House version of the farm bill, the path forward is greatly complicated. In addition, there is a huge gap in the amount of nutrition title cuts that have been sought by the House and Senate,” Pittman said. “The farm bill is definitely sailing in choppy and uncertain legislative waters right now. No one knows what will happen next, or exactly how this is going to play out.”

“If there is going to be a farm bill, both the House and Senate will ultimately have to come to agreement with each other and, therefore, within the ranks of each chamber.”

The Senate has passed its version of the legislation, which includes a nutrition title as has been done for decades. The House, however, has a version that separates the farm and nutrition parts – a significant change in how farm bills have been crafted, and a splitting of the longstanding political alliance between agricultural and urban interests.

Off to conference

“Both chambers must agree on the legislation through the conference committee or by swapping amendments, or come up with another process allowed under House and Senate rules,” he said. “Right now, it looks like we’re headed to a conference committee to try and resolve what are significant differences, namely with respect to whether there will even be a nutrition title in the farm bill. Depending on the level of disagreement, the process can become much more complicated and involved. We may all get the civics lesson we weren’t planning on before all this is said and done.”

Senate Democratic leaders have said they won’t pass a bill without the nutrition part being included and the White House has threatened to veto any farm bill that does not include a nutrition title.

Congress is currently trying to beat the clock, since the 2008 farm bill extension expires Sept. 30 and Congress is in session for about six more weeks between now and then. If the law expires and is not extended or replaced, the default law is the Agricultural Act of 1949. Senate leadership has expressed opposition to another extension of the bill.

“Ultimately, whether there will be a new farm bill, will come down to enough people finding a way to compromise somehow, however convoluted or drawn out the compromise may become,” Pittman said.

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