Lame ducks holding up the farm bill

On the face of it, few things carry a more apt name than today’s “lame duck” Congress. Indeed, how lame is it that after two years of raw partisanship and paralyzing inactivity, we believe two legislative bodies that haven’t agreed on what day it is since 2010 will — what — reform taxes, pass a 2013 budget, complete a 2012 farm bill and “save” Medicare and Social Security all in the next 30 days?

This Congress? The one with 39 House members fired by voters in 2012 and 22 others who wanted out so badly they didn’t even stand re-election, let alone 12 senators currently looking for both lobbying jobs and book publishers?

On second thought, maybe the truly lame ducks are us, because we believe this dysfunctional Congress can complete in one month the work it couldn’t do in two years.

Poor odds

What’s not lame is the galacticly long odds that any “fiscal cliff” package will be wrapped up by Dec. 31. In fact, most on Capitol Hill put the odds at intergalacticly long.

The best proof that either bet is right is November. Half of the eight weeks between Election Day and New Year’s Eve have passed with little to no discussions between any of the key players on any aspect of this massive task.

The Washington Post noticed this silence over Thanksgiving. In a Nov. 23 story outlining where the post-election power lies in the Senate, the newspaper noted that Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA, “has been arguing that missing the deadline for a deal — going over the cliff — could actually make getting a deal easier.”

Murray’s view is important. Since she replaces retiring Kent Conrad, D-ND, as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee in January, any “fiscal cliff” deal must go through her. If she believes a post-Jan. 1 deal is better — mostly because of Democratic gains in both the Senate and the House Nov. 6 — then a post-Jan. 1 deal becomes more likely.

Amid this cliff-watching, the Senate-passed farm bill still naps in the House. Talk of any Dec. 31 “grand bargain” often includes a line or two on how the farm bill could be part of the package.

Hopeful

That chatter, though, is more hopeful than accurate. Since farm bill discussions began two years ago, Speaker of the House John Boehner has promised “regular order” for any vote on an updated ag law.

That means members can offer amendments to the farm bill, a process loaded with time-burning talk and roll call votes. Moreover, the Boehner promise guarantees a farm bill debate would burn four days of the preciously short December House calendar.

The Speaker can abandon his regular order promise but the move likely would be challenged by his caucus’s tea party members who believe several farm bill programs — direct payments and fast-growing food assistance to name just two — need a haircut.

As such, an intra-party squabble is something Boehner can ill-afford, especially if a “fiscal cliff” deal comes to the House some time in December.

Problems

The flip side of that coin, a House-approved farm bill, presents its own problems. The biggest, again, would be time needed for a House-Senate conference to iron out differences between the two bills before a final version heads back to each chamber for a conclusive vote.

The odds of this happening lengthen every day that passes without White House or Congressional action. One agreement between the White House and Congress could, however, deliver a farm bill, a tax reform bill, a federal deficit reduction plan and a blueprint to solidify key American — and heavily rural — programs like Medicare and Social Security: agree to move the Dec. 31 deadline to, say, Sept. 1, 2013.

Lame, sure. But we’re dealing with ducks here. And there, too.

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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