Overshadowed by the government shutdown, the U.S. farm subsidy law expired for the second time on Tuesday with lawmakers still deadlocked over how to confront cuts in food assistance programs for low-income Americans.
Analysts say Congress is more likely to revive the farm law for another year or two — the path it took when the law expired a year ago — than to agree on a new bill.
“They don’t even have the process in place to get it done,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a speech on Tuesday to United Fresh, a trade group for produce growers and processors.
The Democratic-run Senate has proposed $4.5 billion in loophole-closing for food stamps (all figures US$). The Republican-controlled House wants to cut $40 billion over 10 years through tighter eligibility rules that would disqualify four million people.
With expiration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lost authority to run agricultural export, global food aid, livestock disaster relief and some conservation programs. Crop subsidies, crop insurance and food stamps, the big-ticket programs, are permanently authorized and remain in business.
Congress took two procedural steps in the past four days toward negotiations on a final version of the farm bill, but the Republican-controlled House must name its negotiators before talks can begin.
The new five-year farm bill could cost $500 billion with food stamps accounting for three-quarters of the spending.
On Tuesday, the Senate formally asked the House for a “conference” on the farm bill and appointed the same 12 negotiators it named in August. The re-appointments were necessary because the House merged separate farm subsidy and food stamp bills into one bill over the weekend.
Named as Senate conferees were agriculture committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the Republican leader on the panel.
Besides Stabenow, the Democratic conferees are Pat Leahy of Vermont, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Max Baucus of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado. Along with Cochran, the Republican conferees are Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Pat Roberts of Kansas, John Boozman of Arkansas and John Hoeven of North Dakota.
Under congressional protocol, Frank Lucas, chairman of the House agriculture committee, would preside over the negotiations. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said the issue of naming conferees was under discussion, but there were no final decisions so far.
— Charles Abbott reports on U.S. federal farm and food policy for Reuters from Washington, D.C.