WASHINGTON, D.C. — After reconvening for the new session, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have found themselves again gridlocked over a new federal farm bill.
When Congress got back to business Jan. 6, some members expressed a belief that a new bill could be sent to President Obama before the Martin Luther King Jr. Day break. But those hopes were dashed as a new bill will not make it out of the 41-member conference committee to the floors of the House and Senate before members head home at the end of this week.
Both the Senate and House of Representatives will be in recess for the entire fourth week of January.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., spoke from the floor of the Senate Jan. 7 in support of the bill, which will affect both farmers and consumers in Vermont. He urged his colleagues to pass a bill without further delay.
“The farm bill remains as one of the nation’s top legislative priorities,” Leahy said. “Yet it has languished in Congress’s inbox.”
Leahy, who has worked on seven farm bills during his 39 years in the Senate, is the most senior member of the Senate and a member of the farm bill conference committee.
The farm bill sets the nation’s food and nutrition policy. First created by Congress in 1933, the farm bill is traditionally passed every five years. The last farm bill was passed in 2008. After an extension, the provisions of the bill expired at the end of 2013.
In the absence of a new farm bill and the expiration of the 2008 law, the USDA has reverted to a 1949 statute — the last time a permanent farm bill was passed. That legislation mandates that the federal government purchase milk at around $40 per hundredweight — nearly double the current market price of around $20.50 per hundredweight.
This change could, in turn, cause a spike in milk prices to the consumer. So far this has not happened, as U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has directed his department to delay implementation of the law. However, if Congress does not pass a new bill by the end of this month, it is unclear how long the USDA can hold off enforcing the 1949 statutes.
Vilsack on Monday told the American Farm Bureau Federation that he would not focus on enforcing the old law until it became clear Congress would not get a farm bill passed soon.
In his floor speech, Leahy noted that the 2008 farm bill first expired 460 days ago.
“No farm bill is easy, and no farm bill is perfect,” Leahy said. “But to finalize a farm bill, the Senate and House must work together to reach bipartisan agreement.”