CHN: Last Chance for Farm Bill
When Congress returns on March 31 it will have two weeks to work out the details of the Farm Bill or likely have to put off passing a new bill until next year. Negotiations have come to a grinding halt over jurisdictional issues and how to pay for $10 billion in new funding in the $280 billion five-year bill. The Senate Finance Committee, which has found resources to offset the new cost, wants the money, in part, to be used for a $5 billion disaster fund for farmers. House Ways and Means Chairman Rangel (D-NY) insists that money from his committee must be spent to make improvements in Food Stamps and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP). The President says he will refuse to sign a bill that includes tax increases as offsets for new spending. He favors finding money within the bill by restructuring the commodities subsidy program.
During the current two-week congressional recess staff and members are working to reach agreement. Early this week leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees announced they had reached consensus on a plan that would increase spending in the Farm Bill by $10 billion over its current 10-year baseline and allocate these new funds to a number of major areas in the bill including renewable energy, nutrition, conservation, rural development, and disaster assistance. However, the House plan was met with great opposition in the Senate. Finance Committee Chairman, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), claimed the plan was ‘dead on arrival’ because it does not provide sufficient funding for disaster assistance for farmers. Whether negotiators will be able to work out their differences before the April 15 extension deadline remains to be seen. Congressional leaders have signaled that if the deadline isn’t met, they favor waiting until next year to reauthorize the Farm Bill.
Meanwhile advocates worry about the harm that will be brought upon families and seniors struggling to afford nutritious meals if a deal is not reached before the April 15 deadline. Putting the bill off until next year would mean delaying much needed improvements to Food Stamps and TEFAP. Currently the food stamp allotment averages about $1 for each individual per meal, an amount that is not inflation-adjusted and continues to erode. TEFAP dollars are also being stretched, with especially painful effects on seniors, people with disabilities, and families with children.